Come From Away Returns From Away
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, May 20, 2022
Never has a trip home been more emotional than when the Come From Away national tour was met with an immediate standing ovation at Broadway San Diego’s Civic Theater in its May 17-22, 2022 swing through San Diego.
This Tony Award winning Best Musical, with book, music and lyrics by Tony nominees Irene Sankoff and David Hein, paints a vivid image - that of Gander, Newfoundland, its humble and caring occupants, and their immediate response to the 38 planes that land there in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy as well as the subsequent shuttering of American airspace. And while set in a time of unsettling uncertainty, unspeakable loss, and cultural unrest, the story is one of burgeoning friendship, of unconditional support, and of hospitality beyond means, told through the capable hands of an ensemble cast of 12.
Come From Away, which originated at the La Jolla Playhouse, is helmed by Tony-winning Best Director Christopher Ashley. Ashley also directed the recent Apple TV+ film of the production, filmed live onstage with the Broadway cast in response to the COVID-19 shutdown. This particular touring company, whose tour began rehearsing in 2018, has weathered the pandemic pause mostly intact; only actor Andrew Samonsky has moved on. Samonsky is currently rehearsing for La Jolla Playhouse’s upcoming performance of Lempicka.
This national tour cast stars Marika Aubrey, Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson (covered by standby Kilty Reidy in this performance), Christine Toy Johnson, Julie Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Julia Knitel, Sharone Sayegh, Danielle K. Thomas, Jeremy Woodard, Jenny Ashman, Jane Bunting, Amelia Cormack, Aaron Michael Ray, and Brandon Springman.
From the start, the family-like rapport among the cast members is evident; throughout the production, the actors slip into and out of marriages, venues, and arguments with chameleonic skill. And, in fact, the ordinary appearance - and interchangeable reappearance - of the local Islanders and “plane people” belie the performers’ extraordinary talent for transforming into the multiple roles on each track, which they do with committed characterization and apparent ease. Town teacher and librarian Annette (Aubrey) becomes airline pilot Beverley with the addition of a tailored navy blazer. Gander vet Doug (Reidy) becomes British oil company engineer Nick when he puts on a jacket and a cultured London accent. As the musical progresses, each actor ably morphs through similar transitions via blocking and choreography which are tight and telling. A simple right turn transforms a bar into the claustrophobic cabin of a plane, 28 hours in, for example. It’s truly masterful.
Ultimately, the moments are what make this show so incredible, including Hannah’s (Thomas) plaintive pleas to her son’s filled answering machine as she is basked in a purple light and the vulnerability of the catch of Beverley’s (Aubrey) breath as she learns that friend and colleague Charles was the pilot whose plane hit the Pentagon. Most touching was Prayer, a moving interfaith song with resonant harmonies and a celebration of unity hand in hand with religious diversity. Each of these moments is framed by a minimalist set featuring live tree trunks, wooden slats, and a hodgepodge of chairs, a brilliant lighting scheme that transforms the stage from an air control tower to a landing plane to a bus under a starry sky (hat tip to designer Howell Binkley, truly deserving of that 2017 Tony nomination), and a turntable used strategically to enhance profound moments of loneliness, loss, and love. All are executed with perfection.
Come From Away doesn’t shy away from shining a spotlight on racial profiling and systemic structures of oppression either, most tellingly through the experiences of Ali (Duckart), a Muslim master chef who is discriminated against by fellow passengers and ultimately forced to undergo a body cavity search to re-board the plane home, and Bob (Jones), a Black New Yorker who, fearing for his wallet and his life, finds himself borrowing barbecue grills from neighbors’ yards and being offered a cup of tea at each home, to his shock. As Kevin T (Woodard) says, following a national moment of silence in the gas station, he isn’t so sure that the same experiences would have happened back home in the States. It isn’t the only time that such a comparison is made... and while ultimately, it is the generosity and open-mindedness of the Newfoundlanders at the heart of this particular story, these moments of contrast, two decades later, continue to evoke thought about the universality of being a “come from away" and how a community could, if so desired, choose to open its arms and hearts without reservation.
Come From Away plays through the weekend with performances on Friday, May 20 (8 p.m.), Saturday, May 21 (2 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and Sunday, May 22 (1 p.m. and 6 p.m.). Tickets: https://www.broadwaysd.com/upcoming-events/come-from-away/.