Sunday, July 12, 2015

When the Human Spirit Soars

Who among us will ever forget the devastating events and raw emotional response that 911 generated in our American experience? I wasn't aware how close those memories live beneath the surface of my skin, ready to seep through my pores and grab me, with just the right trigger. Until July 4th weekend.

The opening number in Come From Away, the new musical that closes today at La Jolla Playhouse, blasts with energy and bravado. The ensemble cast portrays a rowdy group of men and women from all walks of life in Newfoundland. Yes, the most forgotten land mass closest to us which we know the least about, except for Annie Proulx's book, "The Shipping News." Next, they belt out a song to announce "You Are Here," and we think: okay, guess we're here. Gander, Newfoundland? After a few words from the mayor,  the next number shouts, "Welcome to Newfoundland." From the mayor to the animal protection lady, to the local bus driver and people who run the bar and local academy, these characters are etched in living color, with voices from a far away place, somewhat reminiscent of "Fargo." After all the introductions, the action shifts like a winter blizzard to a TV screen in the local cafe. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. Urgent phone calls are placed as neighbors alert each other to turn on their TVs and radios. Like the rest of the world, the Newfoundlanders are frozen in time, riveted to the news, until they receive notice from U.S. officials that 38 planes are being diverted to their airspace, to land at the Gander Airport. Why Gander? It houses a large airstrip, which used to serve as a refueling stop for airplanes on long hauls around the globe.

Tension, confusion, excitement, bewilderment, and local politics launch the 9,000 townspeople of the forgotten hamlet into a frenzy of activity as they prepare for the flock of airplanes about to descend with an untold number of passengers who will be hungry, tired, scared, and disappointed that they didn't reach their destinations. They will need diapers for babies, meds for old people, toys and books for  children, and food and care for pets stowed in cargo bins. Anticipation on the ground  matches alarm, fatigue, and confusion inside the planes as actors switch from their town roles to their passenger personas. Jenn Colella delivers a strong, inspired performance as the female pilot from Texas who barely manages to control restless charges, held captive for hours in the grounded airplane while the pilot waits for further instructions. This is a mystery never resolved in the story -- why some aircraft had to wait ten or more hours to release passengers. Dazed and distraught, thousands of people in jumbo jets start to file into Gander. With cell phones in limited use or out of the service area, many travelers had no idea why they were diverted in the first place, adding to the confusion and tension.

From the beginning, this play grips your heart and holds it hostage while the emotional memories of 911 mix with the characters and events on stage. Eyes water, tears ready to trickle, but the nonstop motion of the human spirit alive and well in Gander keeps them on the verge. Endless gestures of kindness, concern, generosity, and selflessness abound, to embrace and overwhelm the foreigners, who don't know how to take it all in. When the weary passengers shed their disheveled clothes for warmer, local garb, old ways of thinking about life and people in remote places are discarded for new ways in this touching tribute to humanity. The young black man who's used to watching his back and worrying about his wallet discovers a place where he can round up backyard grills for the town barbecue without asking the owners' permission. The career woman who gave up on love long ago meets the love of her life, a cautious British man who throws caution to the wind. And the mother who eventually flies home to learn her son died in the towers turns first to her new friend in Gander. The example set by the locals seeps into the hearts of the visitors. When their money is refused time after time, the grateful passengers form a scholarship fund, and later organize a return visit for the ten-year anniversary.

Just when it looks like evil has won the day, the spirit of mankind soars in unlikely ways and places. In this joyful ride about the tiny town of Newfoundland, we are reminded that we're all in this together, and we're not as different as we may think. Maybe that's why everyone jumped to their feet for a standing ovation. The spirit of Gander spilled into the audience. Thunderous applause and gratitude rose to fill the room. Like other gems that have graced the La Jolla Playhouse stage, this one is surely Broadway bound. It's hard to deny the the story's relevance to all Americans, or it's poignant celebration of simple humanity, but it's the emotional juggernaut of "Come From Away" that unexpectedly works its way into your psyche and heart, and hopefully, onto a New York City stage.