Remembering 9/11: The Day the Townsfolk Of Gander Opened Their Doors and Their Hearts To the Plane People

The set of "Come From Away"

By Paul Riegler on 11 September 2021
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For the better part of a week, the people of Gander opened their doors and their hearts to the Plane People, as the unexpected guests were called, after airspace over North America was shut down following the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.   Thirty-eight wide-body planes carrying approximately 7,000 passengers and crew members almost doubled Gander’s population overnight.

The Tony Award-winning musical “Come From Away” tells the remarkable story of the Plane People who landed there and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them into their lives.

Jonathan Spira, Frequent Business Traveler’s editorial director and theater critic, reviewed “Come From Away” when it opened in March 2017.  Here is his review, as originally published.

Review: ‘Come From Away’ at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

The big news of the day on September 11, 2001 was the school bus strike in Gander. That was until the “plane people” arrived and this is the theme of “Come From Away,” a musical that opened last Sunday that will make you laugh and cry and restore your faith in humanity, all within 100 minutes with no intermission.

Gander, of course, is home to Gander International Airport, once one of the world’s largest because of its strategic location near the great circle route between the east coast of the United States and Europe. The advent of the jet age meant there was no need to stop to refuel for airlines crossing the Atlantic.

What happened on September 11, 2001 requires no explanation. U.S. airspace – for the first time in history – was completely shut down and suddenly 38 large airliners were diverted to the tight-knit community of Gander.

Up until that day, the airport in Gander typically saw just a handful of planes and that was on a busy day. All of a sudden, some 7,000 tired and bewildered passengers arrived, not quite knowing where they were or why they were there, or how long it would take them to reach their final destinations.

This Canadian export, written by the husband and wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and directed by Christopher Ashley, comes at a time when divisiveness is far more prevalent than inclusivity, where countries talk about building walls rather than building bridges.

The simple “Come From Away” set is made up of 12 chairs that the actors reconfigure for a specific scene, be it set in a Tim Horton’s or the interior of a jet plane, some tall trees, and a rather homespun onstage band.

The actors enact multiple roles while deftly maintaining the unique identity of each character. We first meet the town of Gander through its mayor Claude, played by Joel Hatch, who sets the scene. The entire cast, which includes Jenn Collella as Beverly, the American Airlines pilot and others, Chad Kimball as Kevin T. and others, and Rodney Hicks as Bob the passenger who is blown away by local hospitality and others, truly shines.

On rare occasion, a few display some ugly prejudices (a flight attendant refuses to board her flight because of the presence of a Muslim passenger) but mostly we find inclusiveness (when the gay couple, Kevin and Kevin, wander into a local bar, they find out almost everyone in the bar has a gay daughter, cousin, or friend). Who knew, for example, that Gander was “the gayest town in Newfoundland”?

Several of the plane people become honorary Newfoundlanders, via an initiation rite that includes kissing a fish. Lifelong friendships and relationships are formed, while other relationships are set aside.

“Come From Away” is a window into an extraordinary five-day period that serves to reinforce my belief that the innate goodness may be found in virtually every person. While it takes an extraordinary event and extraordinary people on an island on the edge of the Atlantic to make this point, it’s one you won’t want to miss.  If you see just one show on Broadway this season, this should be it.

THE DETAILS

“Come From Away”
Gerard Schoenfeld Theatre
236 W 45th Street
New York, N.Y. 10036
www.comefromaway.com

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