Review: ‘Come From Away’ at the Straz Center is a life-affirming post-9/11 story

Canadians took in bewildered travelers on Sept. 11. Their generosity lives on in the musical.
The First North American Tour Company of Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The First North American Tour Company of Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Published June 6
Updated June 6

TAMPA — In the chatter around the seats before curtain, someone wondered aloud why it had taken so long for Come From Away to get to Tampa.

Wasn’t the musical about the planes forced to land in Newfoundland on Sept. 11, 2001? Surely a show about the attacks would have been out several years later.

But that’s just it. The book and musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a Canadian married team previously best known for My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, debuted on Broadway in 2017. Sometimes trauma takes what it takes.

Some of the details looks like other disasters at first, but never for long. A thin white line on an air traffic control board marks redirected flights filling up beneath it at what was “North America’s largest airport” before the jet age.

In Gander, the town by the airport, the day has started out in ordinary ways, slyly noted in references to a labor strike, a cigarette break and familiar routines until suddenly the familiar is broken.

This is very much an ensemble piece, which is also appropriate. New York and Washington, D.C., suffered Sept. 11, as did Flight 93 and indirectly the rest of us. Thus even the characters in this show change form several times, switching from Ganderites to passengers and back and forth. We see iffy sudden romances, now tested, budding careers in journalism or veterinary medicine, perhaps. We learn all too harshly about our own tendency to judge all members of a group we have may have come to fear and visit discrimination upon them out of “safety.”

Yet this is no mere morality play. This story holds our attention because these events happened. In a remarkable feat of resourcefulness, the people of Gander took in 38 planeloads of passengers, nearly doubling their population of 7,000. Somehow they managed to keep all supplied with groceries, baby formula and diapers and enough good humor to keep the travelers emotionally grounded as well.

One touching dynamic operates in budding friendship between the American passenger Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas) and the Newfoundlander Beulah (Julie Johnson), in part because both their sons are firefighters. In one scene, twin spotlights shine on each as Beulah tells Hannah a corny joke to try to take her mind off the fact that her son is still missing. The lighting effect captures sheaths of dust particles gracefully floating upward, almost as if being drawn to the bulb. You see that dust and see the towers.

The rest of the show tends to play off one emotion or the other, short doses of pain interspersed with wholesome fun, Irish and Scottish dance and on-stage musicians. One conclusion stands out by the end. The playwrights knew what they were doing. That is why they earn our trust. The big moments come, and then they go, and in the dosages they think America can take. It’s one of the best shows to come through this area in a long time.

IF YOU GO

Come From Away

$74 and up. Runs through Sunday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.

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