‘Come From Away’ Brings Heart, Humanity to The Ordway

When married playwrights David Hein and Irene Sankoff started on the road to creating what would become their biggest show, they were pretty sure it was one that Canadian high school students would be consigned to perform.

“I had already grown up loving Newfoundland music and had always wanted to go there,” said Hein. “We did not think it would be anywhere near as successful, even though we loved the story.”

Their show, Come From Away, ended up being nominated for seven Tony Awards, and is playing in St. Paul at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through June 16.

David Hein and Irene Sankoff (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

David Hein and Irene Sankoff (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

“We just had to do it because the story needed to be told,” said Sankoff. “We respect so much what the Newfoundlanders did and also the fact people like Capt. Beverley Bass’ story hasn’t been told and it should be. And that just gave us permission to just go into it and do the best we could with it.”

The show is based on the true story of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, and the surrounding communities, who took in more than 6,000 people who were stranded in Canada for almost a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When American airspace was closed, planes needed to land immediately; the Gander airport – once a popular stopping point for trans-Atlantic flights that required a fuel stop – took in 38 planes that could not travel to the U.S.

The show features 12 actors playing a variety of characters – every actor in the playbill has a main character “and others” next to their names. 

“It’s an actors’ playground,” said Sankoff, who is in rehearsals to play Bonnie, the SPCA worker who takes care of the animals, in Ottawa and Toronto. “Actors have said it’s exhausting but it’s also so fun to do.”

The show has no intermission and is a fast-paced 100 minutes.

“We all agreed that this was a journey that the audience is invited to go on with you and no one in Gander over those five days could step out and have a drink and decide maybe we’ll leave they won’t come back for act two,” Hein said. “It’s a journey that you go on from the beginning to the end. There are only so many points where the audience even gets to applaud. We really wanted to bring you to Newfoundland and immerse you in that world and not say this is a theatrical thing that needs to be applauded. This is a story that we all tell together.”

The togetherness is a big part of both the show and the Gander community. Every character on stage is based on someone Hein and Sankoff met when they went to the 10th-anniversary commemoration in Gander in 2011.

“Most of them are very good friends of ours and feel like our second family at this point,” Hein said. “There’s been some amalgamations of characters – we met a lot of men named Kevin, a lot of women named Diane. But whenever someone suggested we should just make something up it always felt like the wrong decision. The truth was so much more powerful than fiction.”

The relationship between Gander and the people who they helped in the aftermath of 9/11 has endured; Beulah, the Gander schoolteacher (played in St. Paul by Kristin Litzenberg) visits Hannah (Candace Alyssa Rhodes). Sankoff said that Hannah’s granddaughter and the daughter of Gander Constable Oz Fudge are “like two peas in a pod.”

“In terms of, you know, looking at what came as a result, both positive and negative. That’s that’s always been one of my favorite things to see,” Sankoff said.

Back to the skepticism of this show being successful: it wasn’t only Hein and Sankoff that had questions.

“When we first started telling them what we’re doing, they really had no idea,” Hein said. “We got to the airport and Reg Wright, the president there. And he brought us everywhere on the tarmac, gave us this amazing three-hour tour, and at the end of it, he said: ‘What are you doing? You’re making a musical about people making sandwiches?’ And we said ‘Yeah.’ And he said ‘good luck with that.’ I think they really thought we were crazy.”

The couple’s Jewish heritage comes out in the show with the themes of welcoming the stranger and tikkun olam, even if viewers have to read between the lines.

“One of my favorite parts of the show is the ‘Prayer’ moment,” Hein said of the song that is a medley of ‘Prayer of St. Francis,’ ‘Oseh Shalom,’ and other prayers, and stories like the one of a Muslim man wanting to pray without the judgment of people in the aftermath of 9/11. “We were told stories about places like the library where anyone of any faith could come together and pray and find some sort of peace. The librarian there told us that ‘you can take people away from their homes, but you can’t take them away from their faith.’

“It took a lot of work to take the prayers and the music of religions from around the world and harmonize them together and make them work in concert. But it’s sort of a testament to the work that can be done, hopefully, to bridge those divides.”