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See the Little-Known 9/11 Story of a Small Newfoundland Town in 'Come From Away'

November 21, 2015

Come From Away was written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and was directed by Christopher Ashley and presented by Seattle Repertory Theatre in association with La Jolla Playhouse. 

On Sept 11, 2001, the tiny Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, was as far away from the dramatic events of the day as any place on Earth. But when U.S. airspace closed, dozens of large airliners from Europe had to land somewhere. 

Gander’s 8,000 residents were suddenly hosting an almost equal number of weary, frightened passengers for several days.

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This little-known story of 9/11 became the subject of a new musical called Come From Away at Seattle Repertory Theatre. What unfolds on stage is a brilliant and uncommon mixture of music, compassion, hope and humor that is a much needed remembrance of that September day.

When Canadian authors David Hein and Irene Sankoff (My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding) traveled to Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, they found hundreds of stories of friendship, generosity and compassion told by hundreds of people — some Gander residents and some passengers and crew who had returned for the reunion.

Astrid Van Wieren (Beulah) and Q. Smith (Lana).

“Gander is amazing,” says Hein. “It’s this incredibly rich cultural community, an amazingly giving place where if a stranger shows up at your door you welcome them in, you help them. That’s what you do, and that clearly happened on 9/11.”

Workshopped at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre and mounted first at the La Jolla Playhouse, Come From Away is told by 12 actors who seamlessly play hundreds of colorful characters; from Claude, the exasperated town mayor to Capt. Beverley Bass (American Airlines’ first female captain), who landed her Boeing 777 in Gander. There’s Bonnie, the local SPCA officer who finds more than cats and dogs in the animal manifest, and Lana, a passenger whose son works for the NYFD and is unaccounted for. Most of the characters are based on real people, including Capt. Bass, who came to Seattle — along with 50 other female pilots  — to see the show.

Jenn Colella as Beverley Bass.

Come From Away is a different kind of performance. The music is seamless. Instead of scene-song-scene, this play uses Newfoundland’s famous Celtic-infused music as a deft storytelling device, but not like a thoroughly-composed show like Les Miserables. The onstage band and the actors are in constant motion and song, resulting in a unified and very satisfying experience.

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And a moving experience, too. What both Newfoundlanders and passengers shared in true life, and onstage, is surely a testament to the highest human spirit. Actor Jenn Colella (Beverley) says, “Newfoundlanders represent everything we should be as humans: kindness, gratitude and love.”


Made possible in part by

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg

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The entire province of Newfoundland and Labrador is pretty much the same. Ya got friends travelin' through so you call your mom to see if they can crash there. "I'm sorry honey, we're in 'The City' that weekend but just tell them the garage code is 2202 and that Cindy next door will help them out.".

Seriously, I grew up there. I've made that call. NL is awesome.

Probably the best piece of theater I have seen! That coming from someone who has seen an average of forty plays per year, from Ashland to London to Seatle for the past fifty years.