This review is a companion piece to Katrina Stebbins’s “Stage meets screen in ‘Come From Away,’ a deeply empathetic retelling of lesser-known stories of 9/11.”
There’s something special about the space that theaters inhabit, especially when they’re empty. The ghost light filters throughout the empty orchestra and mezzanine, the world-weary seats filled with the specters of past guests, people who once filled them in anticipation of being transported elsewhere for the next two hours. The stage stands bare, the curtains framing the proscenium like velvet bangs, the interior an empty picture full of potential: The potential for stage crews to push massive, scene-stealing set pieces out of the wings, the potential for the actors to egress from backstage into the world they exist in for a few hours a day, the potential to be someone else and the potential to entertain, inform and change the lives of those viewing the experience.
The air singes with electric possibilities, the entire theater impatient for actors to once again fill the stages and audiences to fill the seats. There is a magic in theater that has been desperately missing from our lives since Broadway and theaters nationwide closed down due to the pandemic; the show simply could not continue to go on when we most needed it.
I spent all four years in high school inside the walls of our theater. I had class there daily with people who became family, and I probably spent more time with them than at my actual house with my actual family. Coming to the University of Michigan, I was quick to get familiar with the various student theater groups, because, although I am now a film major, I could never let go of the stage entirely.
Whenever I was home in New Jersey for the holidays, I tried to make at least one pilgrimage to Manhattan to see whatever show I could get tickets for. I was devastated when theaters closed for the pandemic, and I have been anxiously awaiting the day I will be able to sit down for a live show again. Whether it be straight plays, Shakespeare or musicals, theater has always been the constant in my life, the binding rock through fits of depression, anxiety, heartbreak and whatever other extra hardships life threw my way. I met some of my best friends through acting and cannot even begin to count the number of shows that have had a profound impact on my life.
Not having theater around in its traditional form for over a year hurt. So when I saw that “Come From Away” was finally available on Apple TV+, I clicked play immediately.
“Come From Away” is the story of the townsfolk of Gander, Newfoundland, and how they came together in the aftermath of 9/11 — when airspace was closed over America — to house up to 7,000 diverted travelers who could not get home. The show has long been a personal favorite of mine; the music is folksy and engaging, the lyrics are often profound and help a slim, well-paced book tell the story of the hundreds of real-life people portrayed by 12 actors.
The simple wooden set works in tandem beautifully with the light design, giving a seemingly empty space incredible depth and versatility. In person, everything comes together under the direction of Christopher Ashley (“The Rocky Horror Show”), in both the theatrical and filmed production, to form a riveting and emotionally charged one-act show. Thankfully, Ashley keeps his keen directorial eye and transfers the in-person experience seamlessly into the pro-shot.
Rather than being a film adaptation of a show, a pro-shot is quite literally a filmed version of a stage production. The camera movements and edits are there to help enhance the experience, often helping to focus the massive framing and blocking of live shows for smaller screens.
Pro-shots are far from a new concept — they have existed within the Broadway community for years — but it was only recently that people woke up to the larger general demand for them and began to view them as a possible solution to the class problems plaguing theater. When a ticket costs upwards of $300 dollars for a single seat, maybe less if you’d settle for one in the nosebleeds, it becomes hard for everyone who isn’t from an upper-middle-class family to see shows. Productions as powerful and essential as “Come From Away” have a greater impact when more people have access to them; thus, it is a great boon for everyone that the pro-shot is available for wider consumption.
Part of the reason that “Come From Away” is vital viewing for everyone is because it is not your typical 9/11 fare. The show is never saturated with American exceptionalism, calls to arms for our troops or the war that ensued after the attack; rather, it focuses on how the death and destruction affected everyone around the world. A majority of the characters in the show are not even American citizens, and those who are usually don’t let that define them.
Married writing duo Irene Sankoff and David Hein focus the piece on empathy and compassion, on a community coming together to help complete strangers during a time of pure fear and tragedy. We follow all these Newfoundlanders, their kettles always on and their beds always set for visitors because they put helping others ahead of their own daily lives and routines.
Gander has an interesting history as a refugee-hub: As Newfoundland’s only international airport, and a place where flights from all over often stop to refuel, flights during the Cold War Era frequently emptied, only leaving the flight crew as everyone else asked for political asylum. Other events throughout history, such as Y2K, have unknowingly acted to prepare Gander’s citizens and its airport for the events that unfolded on Sept. 11.
Since then, Gander has not experienced a refugee event of similar scale, but I imagine that doesn’t change the fact that the townsfolk are always ready and waiting to welcome more “come from aways,” should the opportunity ever present itself. It makes one sit and think: “Would we do that?” While individual answers may vary, I believe that, after watching America over the past two years of the pandemic, the answer is no, we would not.
That’s the true power of “Come From Away” and why its release, not only in time for the 20th anniversary of 9/11 but also during a pandemic, is so powerful. The show lives and breathes friendliness and empathy, but is not afraid to delve into the darker parts of the rebuilding process, including the rampant Islamophobia and trauma that we as a nation still struggle with today.
And that’s the key word here: trauma.
We have all been subjected to a year and a half of unmitigated trauma at the hands of COVID-19. Our first responders have worked tirelessly since the beginning of 2020 and are far beyond running on fumes as emergency rooms continue to fill and overflow. It is so ridiculously easy to look at the news — to look at all the states banning mask mandates and all the people ignoring rules or falsifying vaccine cards — and be overwhelmed by the selfishness.
Just like in the aftermath of 9/11, many people quickly moved back from “us” to “me,” but that doesn’t minimize the good that people are still doing. Acts of pure compassion and goodness still resonate like beacons of radiant warmth and remind us that for all the bad, there will always be good to balance it out. “Come From Away” floats above it all as a lifeboat of affection and community, highlighting the stories of those who helped during the unimaginable.
The best theater sits you down in that slightly uncomfortable velvet chair, whose armrests dig into your arms just a little, challenges everything you know and reaffirms your humanity. It may not have been live, but simply seeing people back on stage, performing in a room full of vaccinated and masked patrons, made me cry. Some deep unknown sadness voiced itself as the Newfoundlanders went through their own “Blankets and Bedding” for the sake of the plane people, and I cried.
I cried for theater and how much I missed it. I cried for the majesty of seeing live performances again, of imagining myself one day soon in the audience supporting an art form I love and desperately miss. I cried for the beautiful story and the beautiful book and the beautiful songs and the beautiful actors finally getting to do what they love once again.
I cried for the terrors that I know everyone went through on and because of 9/11, when I was barely even two, and my family had just moved back to the United States. I cried for the terrors and atrocities and traumas that we are going through now, the seemingly never-ending variants always looming overhead, blocking the exit. I cried because deep down, I know we will get through this. Someday.
But so many people have been and will be lost and the world will feel emptier and irrevocably different until it is all we know as normal.
I cried because this pandemic will always be a part of our lives, a foundational piece in the puzzle of who we are decades from now when it seems like a funny memory but hurts like an open wound.
I cried because it will be only then, years and years from now when hundreds of thousands more tragedies have occurred, that we will finally be able to sit down and fully accept everything that happened because it is too distant to change.
I cried because in the face of all this death, all this selfishness and tragedy, people find it within themselves to be vulnerable, to love and care and extend a helping hand even to those who would not do the same.
These are the people shows will be made about, not the ones who defined how we acted but how we want to believe we acted. Because if there is that much good in some of us, there has to be hope for the rest of us too.
Digital Culture Beat Editor M. Deitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.