Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Play: Taking a Gander

Come From Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Directed by Christopher Ashley, through December 13. Seattle Rep.


This is probably the most difficult glowing review I've ever written. I've put down my thoughts on 9/11 elsewhere, and thought that, coming up on 15 years since the event, I was well clear of the emotion and the heartache of that day. But I was wrong, and have had to start this a couple times already. And during the performance my icy old heart may have calved off a few bergs and I may have knuckled back the tears at the corners of my eyes. Its that good.

Anyway, in recording some of the histories of others, I previously mentioned that two friends were flying back from Europe that day. They felt the plane shift beneath them and watched the light of the sun shift from the left-hand windows to the right-hand ones. They has turned around and were going back to the continent, because Newfoundland was already full from planes that were already closer to the states.

Gander Airport, Newfoundland, after 9/11
This musical is about those people in Newfoundland, near the town of Gander, where a huge airport had been built back in the days when the jets had to stop for refueling there before pressing on. Gander is a small town of about 9000 people. And thirty-six planes set down there in the wake of 9/11, sudden arrivals in their small town. This musical is about the Newfoundlanders and the Plane People.

And it is very, very good.

Part of it is because of the cast. All are strong-voiced (and miked up), good singers, excellent dancers, and good actors. There are a dozen in the company (not including another six or so in the band) who take on the hundreds involved in the event. Actors change characters with surprising grace. Lee MacDougall is both an air traffic controller married to a veterinarian among the Ganders and a shy British executive who comes off as a polite, likeable Jeremy Clarkson. Chad Kimball is one of the two Collins, a gay couple, as well as the striking school bus driver leader. Casear Samayoa is his boyfriend and an Egyptian chef separated from the others by his origins. Jenn Colella  rocks as both a local librarian and the Captain of one of the flight. And Joel Hatch hangs a lampshade on it all by portraying every mayor in Newfoundland. All of them are amazing as they blend back into the company to create a horde of characters on the stage.

And the stage. Minimalist, with trees surrounding a rotating center. Band tucked in the corner. The center is everything - bar, Tim Hortons, plane interiors, all built and deconstructed with chairs and tables, all worked seamlessly with the action on the stage. The pacing is intense and continual and relentless, and the music is perfect. This is a well-oiled theatrical machine, perfected by the La Jolla Playhouse, and powered by passion and drive.

The story comes at you full force. Opening on the ground in Gander, then up to the planes where confusion reigns, then into the towers as everyone reroutes them back onto the ground as heavy lifter after heavy lifter comes onto the field. The townspeople scrambling to handle some 9000 new additions. And against it the personal stories - most of them pretty straightforward - the strangers who meet and hit it off, the gay couple whose relationship is challenged, the city guy told to go out and take everyone's backyard grill for a cook-out - no, really, they won't mind. The characters are a bit broad - the plane people connect because they're the people you always see at the airports, the Gander folk because they would not be out of place in an episode of Red Green or even A Prairie Home Companion. Yeah, Lake Woebegone via the coastal provinces.

I look at the past few paragraphs - actors playing multiple roles, empty stage, shifting locations quickly. This is all Brecht's epic theater, without the political agenda and packed with intentionally sympathetic characters. Remember how I said that epic theater has become just theater. Here's an example. And it is used to get you by the feels and drag you through 100 minutes of intensity.

The timing of the play is something, both seasonal and national. Seasonal because we stand on the cusp of that busiest of holidays when everyone is visiting friends and family for a big meal. And national because as in the wake of the Paris attacks, some among us are actually so hard-hearted and foolish to blame refugees for the situation. (And on a note on that, a friend mentioned that our home town, is minority majority. To that I will add that we have 4000+ people of refugee status in our little town of Kent already, and the 10K everyone is kicking about is a drop in the bucket).

So yes, this is your holiday play. Positive. Uplifting. Gives you hope in your fellow man. Go see it. It is already the hot ticket item, and when we got to the theater there was a line fifty people deep at the sales booth. Yeah, you're going to hit some post traumatic stress. And yeah, you're going to cheer the band as they do one more encore number.

More later,