Then, that bright September morning when it was needed most, Gander was there, and a town long in search of a defining moment had at last had one foisted upon it.
On a chilly autumn evening this October, it had another. Outside the local hockey arena, a lineup – polite, patient, huddling against a rising, icy wind – shuffled two by two inside, the rink remade for the night into a makeshift opera house. The room was packed; another crowd just like it was waiting for show No. 2, later the same night. “I can’t imagine how a bowl of soup, a sandwich and a blanket could turn into this 15 years later,” said Elliott, elated.
The cast, in their best Newfoundland brogues, shifted easily from character to character, setting up the ordinary foibles of ordinary life in an unremarkable small town – the school bus drivers are on strike, the school needs a new roof – about to be thrust into the realm of the extraordinary.
An opening number, “Welcome to the Rock,” built to a taut, declarative refrain (“I am an islander/I will not be drowned”), all but bringing the crowd to its feet. It was a good sign; the piece was not yet five minutes old.
Come From Away moves like that: brisk, agile, never lingering on low notes long enough to be maudlin, nor on its many laughs (and make no mistake, there are many) long enough to be corny. By the end of the second performance, not only was the entire hockey arena standing, stomping and clapping along, some of them were on the stage: Elliott, for one, dancing a jig with Jenn Colella, the actress who plays Beverley Bass. (Bass, after the show, wipes tears away. She’s seen it dozens of time, but “we never get tired of it and we never stop crying.” she says.)
Bromley, milling in the crowd, admitted to art bleeding into life a little more than planned. “There were a few tears up there that weren’t in the script,” she said. “We were really just trying to keep it together.”
Nearby, Rubinoff, cheering loudly throughout from his seat about 10 rows back, stood up, agog. He shifted from foot to foot, dabbing at his eyes. “We didn’t know how they’d react. We didn’t know. Would they just be polite? But this . . . ” He shook his head.
A few rows away, Hein and Sankoff were overcome with people offering handshakes and hugs, and much more of the latter. “We’ve seen this show 33 times now,” said a tearful Sankoff. “But never like this.”
Davis, in the second row, sat quietly in her chair, transfixed by the elation around her. She had brought about a dozen of the Syrian refugees in her care to see the show, giving them the front row. One of them, a spirited 3-year-old girl, kept wandering near the stage to dance. When Davis finally stood, she let go a big, deep breath, her eyes moist and red.
“Some of the stories they told up there were word for word. Word for word. It put me right back there. They really listened,” she said. “It’s overwhelming. I think for the first time in my life, I don’t have the words.”
In the final moments of Come From Away, the planes alight and keen homeward, and the bright sunshine of their time here becomes crowded out by dark thunderheads. Outside the arena, this very night, the sparkling blue sky above was giving way to a stiff wind that, by morning, would bring an icy, sideways rain. Now, as then, Gander’s moment in the sun was ending. But its legacy is written for good.
Come From Away is at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre Nov. 15 to Jan. 8. See mirvish.com/shows/come-from-away for tickets and information.