No one who lived through it, I suspect, will ever forget quite where they were on September 11, 2001, when they first saw the footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, or the Pentagon, or in a field in Pennsylvania.
And still, almost 20 years later, it’s hard to find the words to explain to our kids just what happened on that day that changed just about everything.
That’s why I jumped at the chance to take my daughter, Elly, now 10, to go see the national tour of “Come from Away,” playing at the Keller Auditorium through March 3. The nearly-but-not-quite sung-through Broadway musical tells the unlikely story of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, which had its population nearly double in a matter of hours when 38 planes landed there after the airspace over the U.S. was completely shut down in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers.
A disclaimer right up front: If this were a movie, it would be PG-13, thanks to the occasional presence of salty language. Every parent needs to make their own personal choice on this — in our house, for better or for worse, the kids are reasonably well aware of such words, and I’d much rather that they encounter curse words in entertainment than, say, guns and violence.
And “Come from Away” is the opposite of guns and violence. It’s a story with enormous poignancy and heart that moved us both to tears (what? It’s genetic!) at several moments during the performance; it’s all the more resonant because it’s all based on true events.
There really is a Gander. Its population is about 9,000 people, making it an unlikely place to play host to 38 jumbo airplanes, except that back in the days before planes could carry enough fuel to make it over the Atlantic in one go, Gander was where they stopped to refuel. So when the news about 9/11 broke, U.S-bound planes coming from everywhere were diverted there — from France, Germany, Africa and many more points around the globe.
And the people of Gander responded by opening their hearts and their homes. Temporary shelters were set up in hours, and food was prepared around the clock for the 7,000 or so stranded airline passengers — plus assorted cats, dogs and two rare Bonobo chimpanzees bound for the Columbus Zoo – who were stuck there for five surreal days.
The musical tells the stories of both the “plane people” and the Gander residents. Its genius is that the same actors play both residents and visitors, neatly underscoring the point that we are all just people, no matter where we are from.
It’s the mini-stories that really thrum in the Portland production. Danielle K. Thomas’s turn as Hannah O’Rourke, a mother desperately trying to get some word of her son, a firefighter in Crown Point, Brooklyn who had been dispatched to Ground Zero, will break any parents’ heart into tiny pieces. Christine Toy Johnson and Chamblee Ferguson play Nick and Diane, two stranded passengers who meet in Gander; palpable sparks fly, a lovely reminder that even great tragedy can spark joy. And James Earl Jones II (no relation to the voice of Darth Vader) is funny and pointed as a black man who cannot get over the acceptance and civility of his Canadian hosts.
Perhaps the very best parts of the show, though, are the group numbers, particularly the joyous “Screech In” which stopped the show. The song tells the story of the night that everyone — visitors and guests alike — needed to blow off some steam after days of staring bleakly at the news. A Newfoundland rite of passage/initiation ritual unfolded, complete with kissing of a live cod, a shot of the local witches’ brew and the donning of a bright yellow, broad-brimmed rain hat. The music is infectious; the dancing makes you want to get up and join the jig.
The next day, Elly and I talked more about “Come from Away,” and I found it easier than ever before to tell her about my own experiences with September 11, and the changes it brought to our country, from increased airport security all the way to military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it’s a conversation we’ll continue for awhile; I’m grateful to “Come from Away” for showing me how to begin.