Twenty years on, it’s hard to remember a time when the date Sept. 11 didn’t immediately conjure images of planes, American flags and firefighters surrounded by smoking rubble and twisted steel beams. It was a moment that inaugurated a new era in American history: one of fear, misinformation, divisiveness and long wars in the Middle East.
But before GITMO, WMDs and Abu Ghraib meant anything to most, there was a demonstration of extraordinary humanity in the chaos of that infamous day. After the attacks took place, the small Newfoundland town of Gander housed and fed some 7,000 travelers who had been stranded when their planes were rerouted from American airspace.
“Come From Away,” a Canadian musical coming to the Altria Theatre on Feb. 1 as part of the Broadway in Richmond series, recounts this moment of exceptional kindness. A critical and commercial success when it opened on Broadway in 2017, the musical dramatizes the story of these stranded passengers, the small town that took them in, and the aftershocks of one of America’s darkest days. In his review for The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote “even the most stalwart cynics may have trouble staying dry-eyed during this portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.”
Playing numerous roles in the national tour is Nick Duckart, a Miami native whose credits include turns as Usnavi in “In the Heights” and Juan Peron in “Evita.” In “Come From Away,” Duckart plays Kevin J. and other characters.
“It’s the remarkable true story of when 38 commercial airliners were rerouted to Gander, Newfoundland, after the 9/11 attacks,” says Duckart of the show. “Over the course of these five days, these stranded passengers were treated with kindness and humanity, given food and shelter, communication with loved ones. It’s not just a 9/11 story; we call it a 9/12 story, because it’s [about] the kindness that came as a result.”
To portray the stories of stranded travelers and roughly 9,000 Gander residents, Duckart says he and his 17 castmates engage in some theatrical “slight of hand.”
“In one scene we’re one character, and then 10 seconds later we’re a completely different person with a completely different dialect and a completely different physicality,” Duckart says, adding that his part as Kevin J., one half of a same-sex couple, is “the most exciting role” he’s ever done. Duckart also plays Ali, an Egyptian Muslim stranded in Gander, and Dwight, a Newfoundland man.
Part of the cast’s challenge is capturing a wide variety of accents.
“The Newfoundland dialect is one I never had any sort of experience with [before]. It’s sort of a combination of Canadian with Irish with Scottish,” Duckart says. “It’s this weird sort of hybrid sound, and getting to work on that was a lot of fun, but it was very, very challenging, because my ear was not used to hearing that sort of thing.”
Duckart says response to the show has “been overwhelmingly positive since day one.” After performances, Duckart says that audience members often approach him to share their own stories of 9/11, including those who knew people in the Twin Towers and even some of the real-life passengers who were stranded in Gander.
“It’s really, really great to have that moment of catharsis with our audience, because those of us who were alive during 9/11 will never forget where we were,” he says, adding that the story of Gander’s compassion is one that many audiences are unfamiliar with.
“We’re sharing this completely new 9/11 narrative that they have never heard before, and it’s one that’s completely based on the human capacity for kindness and good.”
At a time when we’re suffering from pandemic fatigue, frustration and political divisiveness, Duckart says “Come From Away” offers audiences a chance to disappear into a heartwarming tale.
“You’re going to see 90 minutes of unparalleled kindness and good,” Duckart says. “You’re going to leave the theater feeling much better than when you came in.”
Broadway in Richmond’s “Come From Away” plays Feb. 1-6 at the Altria Theatre, 6 N. Laurel St., 23220. For more information, visit broadwayinrichmond.com.