On a night out to the theater, one rarely expects to think much about the tragedy of September 11, 2001 or its social and international ramifications. 2017’s Broadway hit “Come From Away,” however, tells the stories of September 12 through 16 as they played out in Gander, a small town off the east coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Stopping at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre for only a few weeks of its national tour, the show moved and motivated audiences. Witty, topical and brimming with heart, “Come From Away” seeks to “honor what was lost” but also “commemorate what we found.”
The show begins with a brief history of the sleepy, close-knit town: “Welcome To The Rock.” Once one of the biggest airports in the world, Gander International Airport served as a refuel station for transatlantic flights. As airplanes innovated to fly longer ranges, the site’s terminals sat mostly empty; that was, until U.S. airspace closed immediately following the attacks on the Twin Towers. The action in “Come From Away” opens here, as 38 flights with almost 7000 people are diverted to Gander immediately following the attacks on the Twin Towers. The townspeople scramble to feed, shelter and comfort folks who have no idea what has happened and no way to contact their family.
Accordingly, “Come From Away” is a true ensemble production. With 12 actors, each playing multiple roles, the show fits in dozens of overlapping, heart-pulling stories with no intermission: a newscaster on her first day, a pilot trying to contact her family, the mother of a New York firefighter, two middle-aged passengers flirting with each other, non-native English speakers attempting to understand the situation and a Muslim passenger facing Islamophobia.
Still, in a show with so many moving parts, it follows that the cast faced a few stutters along the way, occasionally missing a beat and failing to blend their singing styles. These hiccups, however, pale in comparison to the phenomenal agility of both the set and actors. Composed of only chairs and the occasional prop, the scenery morphs between a plane, school, bar, mountain range and more. Again and again, it is the actors themselves responsible for timing these set changes along with their dialogue and choreography.
This virtually seamless connectedness gives one a sense of what it might have been like in Gander that September, as the whole town united to welcome the foreigners. Its exceptional synchronicity parallels the exceptional demonstration of human ingenuity and kindness found in the story it tells.
This production also faced a few humps in terms of tonal murkiness. Moments that should have been given some solemn weight end up played for laughs, like when an overzealous Bush impression turns the president’s speech — a crucial moment of rest — into a half-hearted joke. Had the show chosen to linger in its emotional beats more, it might not have felt so rushed.
Actors Marika Aubrey and Julia Knitel shone brightest as Captain Beverley Bass and Gander reporter Janice, respectively. The two moved seamlessly between key characters, bearing substantial emotional weight. Danielle K. Thomas’s performance as Hannah, a mother of a New York firefighter, anchors the story. Her concern for her son was palpable, lending a gut-wrenching arc to “Come From Away”’s controlled chaos. “28 Hours / Wherever We Are” and “Something’s Missing” also swelled beautifully, the former establishing the full scope of the ensemble and the latter establishing the full scope of the tragedy.
But chief among the show’s highlights was the final number “Screech Out.” Beginning as background music to the cast’s bows, the instrumental grew to include solos from several members of the band. Mostly shrouded behind faux trees for most of the play, the musicians emerged to much fanfare, as audience members jumped up from their seats to clap along. Despite the heaviness of the show’s subject matter, this final movement drove home its largest theme: community. Looking around, one would see several teary-eyed faces, yet each one was smiling.
The “Come From Away” national tour carves itself out as a story of immense, immense heart. Bring your loved ones, and bring your tissues.