Fresh off Canada's Thanksgiving holiday (it was Monday), a heartwarming Canadian export has arrived in Shea's Buffalo Theatre to share those grateful feelings.
The hit musical "Come from Away" is set in Gander, Newfoundland, pop. about 12,000, where 38 commercial jets carrying nearly 7,000 passengers were forced to land when North American airspace was closed in the hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The response of the residents of the isolated island outpost is a reminder of how important neighbors and friendships can be.
The charms of "Come From Away" are deceptively down-to-earth, just like the inhabitants of "the Rock." Costumed in jeans and flannels and comfort-fit cargo pants, the characters played by this cast of 12 exude a normality that belies the extraordinary events that are about to overtake them.
The show's action opens the same way that sunny Tuesday began for just about everyone. People are going to work, Gander's mayor is headed to Tim Hortons, and the local school bus drivers are on strike. And then, in a scene of painful familiarity, we see the shocked expressions as they alert one another to turn on their radios or televisions because something horrible has happened.
Time has erased much of the uncertainty that defined those first few hours, but it all comes back as events play out onstage. Was this a horrible accident, or a deliberate attack? Will there be more? Pilots over the Atlantic Ocean are told they must land immediately – without letting their passengers know why – and people on the ground are rushing to accommodate them, heaven only knows how. Confusion reigns in all its fearful and funny forms, and no matter where you are, you run into the same question: What is going on?
From the planes, Beverley, one of the first woman airline pilots, is devastated by the loss of a friend and by the how the planes she loves were weaponized, and Ali, an Egyptian passenger, is briefly demonized because of his religion.
Bob, an African American New Yorker, is totally baffled by the trusting openness of the Canadians; Kevin and Kevin, a gay couple unsure of how they will be received in this unhip locale; and Nick and Diane, strangers on a plane who get through it together.
And then there's Hannah. Hannah's son is a New York City firefighter, and she hasn't been able to reach him. While the others settle in, Hannah remains on edge, her only lifeline being Beulah, a Gander woman whose son also is a firefighter.
Shepherding them through it all are the practical people of Gander, who know just where to keep food for an army on ice and how to roll out a welcome for thousands of people who didn't want to come. It looks like way more than a dozen people up there are the actors smoothly shifting their characters from the economy class cabin to Gander locales just by changing hats and rearranging a set of mismatched chairs.
All the while they deliver dialogue that is pointedly funny while still being natural, with the elegant choreography of the stagecraft following along seamlessly.
Wrap all this in spritely musical numbers that reflect the town's Celtic roots, accompanied by a small onstage band using traditional instruments, and by the end of the evening, you feel like you've been to Gander yourself. Or that you would like to go there.
This unexpectedly uplifting visit leaves us celebrating the triumph of humanity over fear and suspicion, and the value of trust and friendships, something that should be part of every Thanksgiving.
"Come From Away"
4 stars (out of 4)
Through Oct. 20 in Shea's Buffalo Theatre (646 Main St.). Tickets are $45-$102, available at sheas.org.