A scene from Come From Away, which was filmed earlier this year and will be broadcast Sept. 10 on Apple TV+. The musical was written by Canadians David Hein and Irene Sankoff. Photo courtesy Apple TV+

Christianity central to 'Come From Away'

  • September 3, 2021

It has been nearly five years since Come From Away debuted and enraptured big-city theatre audiences with its musical depiction of how the people of Gander created a ray of light within the darkness of 9/11 for nearly 7,000 Americans forced to make an emergency landing in the remote Newfoundland town.

Their planes were diverted from their destinations and forced to land when Transport Canada and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration closed North American airspaces following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States. Thirty-eight civilian flights and another four military flights touched town in the northeastern Newfoundland town, with the local population rallying to welcome, house, feed and entertain the disrupted travellers.

On Sept. 10, the eve of the 20th anniversary of the attacks, the potential audience for the Tony-winning musical (for best direction) will extend to the whole world. The cast and crew reunited in May — abiding by COVID-19 safety protocols — at New York’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theater to film a recording of the musical over four days that will air on Apple TV+.

Cast members, director Chris Ashley and the creators of the play, writing and life partners Irene Sankoff and David Hein, sat down for virtual roundtables with The Catholic Register and other media for a wide-ranging discussion in advance of the anticipated premiere. Topics discussed included the purposeful timing of the release, the technical process of live recording the play and the powerful message that humanity can trample despair.

Interestingly, many of the players were very keen to offer their observations about the Christian values inherent in Come From Away.

Q. Smith, who portrays passenger Hannah O’Rourke, made a request to wear a crucifix around her neck when performing the role to enhance the reality of the character, a devout believer in Christ. She cherished the faith dimension of the musical.

“I remembered calling Hannah one day and her granddaughter answered, and I asked, ‘where’s granny?’ And she said, ‘she’s at church, praying.’ She’s always at church praying,” said Smith. “She is a person of faith. Irene and David did not stray far from who she really is — sweet little Irish woman. Her faith grounds her and gives her strength. And in real life it gives me strength too.”

Smith shared how she touches the cross necklace throughout the play in honour of O’Rourke and her late son Kyle, a firefighter who lost his life in the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

Astrid Van Wieren plays Gander resident Beulah Davis, a Catholic who forges a bond with O’Rourke over their sons both being firefighters and because of their love of Jesus Christ. Hannah, Beulah and a host of other characters come together in fellowship to pray.

“You see that when the characters are in the library together,” said Van Wieren. “Everyone is coming to offer up prayers from their different systems of belief for peace, love and kindness.

“And for Beulah and Hannah, faith is what strengthens their friendship. You see that it allows them to speak a similar language even though they come from completely different walks of life.”

The husband and wife team of Sankoff and Hein, products of Toronto and Regina respectively, were effective in creating an authentic reality for both the uplifting and tragic dimensions of this true-life story. They were in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. They did not have to imagine the incalculable devastation the Americans would have felt once they finally heard news of the attack after their emergency landing at Gander International Airport.

And, thanks to visiting Gander when the “plane people” returned for a 10th anniversary commemoration in 2011, they observed the personalized bonds between the people of Gander and their new friends. They also created an organic portrait of the quirky Newfoundland customs — the characters get “screeched in” — and traditions that lift the spirits of the 7,000 in the midst of their despair.

The creators were asked about why they felt inspired to include the song “Prayer,” a portrait of people of different faiths coming together for a common purpose.

“I visited the library in Gander and the librarian said that it was a place of prayer at the time,” said Sankoff. “She then said to me, ‘you can take people away from their homes, you can take them from their loved ones, but you can’t take them from their prayer,’ and we thought that was something so important to include.

“There were people finding a place at the tables, the aisles and on the stairs and it became a sacred place of worship. It is such a wonderful example for us as human beings.”

Hein said the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi was the bedrock on which this song was built.

“When we first interviewed Kevin Tuerff, who is one of the Kevins in our show, he mentioned he had this song, ‘Make me a Channel of Your Peace,’ running through his head.

“A year or two later when he came and saw a workshop, he said, ‘how did you know that was in my head? I’ve never told that to anyone.’ And I said, ‘you told it to us.’ And then, because of the library, we began to layer other prayers on top and it is significant work to harmonize the prayers together, but it’s been a wonderful metaphor for the work becoming bigger than itself and if you put the work in, you can create something beautiful.”

The value of compassion, hospitality and unity are other Christian precepts very evident in Come From Away. Nearly every cast and crew member partaking in the roundtable said they found that the spirit of coming together, paying it forward and choosing decency over division that arose on and after Sept. 11 is not as abundant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They hope the message of the play could spark a desire in people to choose humanity again.

Following the Apple TV presentation, the musical begins another run on Broadway beginning Sept. 21. It also returns to Toronto’s Mirvish Theatre in December.

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