I don’t remember ever hearing about Gander, the Newfoundland town where dozens of airplanes were sent when U.S. air space was shut down after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
For five days, close to 7,000 people were stranded in this remote Canadian town and cared for by its townspeople. This story is the premise of “Come From Away,” the Tony Award-winning musical currently at The Hippodrome.
Yes, it’s a musical about 9-11 and it won a Tony. Actually, it’s story about 9-12 and the good that people do after tragedy strikes, actor Becky Gulsvig told Style a few weeks ago. Gulsvig plays American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass and she loves the part. Traveling across the country to recreate this real-life person takes her away from her husband and daughter, but the play has made the sacrifices worth it.
It’s funny, she warned us. And it will fill us up.
Yes. And yes. The play ended hours ago, but I am still thinking about it and pondering what was more spot on: Gulsvig’s predictions of how this story would make the audience feel, or how well each of the actors portrayed the aftermath of this tragedy. From the first hockey joke to the passengers’ fears about a Muslim traveler, familiar territory is traveled but not trod with cliche.
There are trips to the store to prepare for the passengers, a bus strike that needs to end so the newly arrived can be transported from the airport, and an SPCA volunteer intent on helping stranded furry passengers.
Jokes and the emotion are well timed: A gay man wonders how the townspeople in one of the local bars will react to him and his partner. He is surprised when they share stories of their own gay family members, which prompts him to ask if he is stranded in the “gayest town” in Canada.
Another Gander native, the mother of a firefighter, awkwardly tries to connect with and console a passenger whose son is a firefighter in New York City. There is a lot of “aw shucks” to her Canadian, but her desire to want to say the right thing, to be of help to someone is so relatable.
I spent 9-11 calling friends and work colleagues in New York and Washington, D.C. All were OK. The next day we got a call about our friends and former neighbors, Leslie and Charlie, and their two little girls. We thought they were on sabbatical in Australia. They were not — they had been on their way there, in the plane that had crashed into the Pentagon.
That’s how I missed the story of Gander. The rest of the week, of that month actually, was a blur. And so were many Septembers for years to come.
Because of the emotions that people like me still carry, Gulsvig says she was eager for the cast to bring the play to the East Coast. Baltimore was ready for it: The theater was full and the audience unanimously leapt to its feet the moment the last note was sung, its appreciation surging to the stage. I have been to a lot of good shows and I have never seen a reaction like this.
But this play, and the way it touches on our fears and confusion, the goodwill of others, and even its moose jokes, resonates so well. Like the best of stories, it does indeed fill us up. And if like me, if you missed the story of Gander the first time around, don’t miss out the second time.
“Come From Away” is at The Hippodrome through Sunday, April 28. The Hippodrome Foundation is partnering with St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore during the show’s run. Play goers can bring donations of twin flat and fitted sheets, pillow cases, dish towels and oven mitts to the Fayette Street entrance of the theater during any upcoming performance.