DES MOINES — The first time you laugh during “Come From Away,” it catches you off guard. Is it appropriate? When the central event of the musical is the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, can you really laugh?
Well, yes. And the audience does, frequently, during the uproariously funny and touching performance.
The musical opened Tuesday at the Des Moines Civic Center. Creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein walked a fine line, and the show’s humor works because it aims not at people, but at the inherent awkwardness of a small town of 9,600 or so suddenly caring for more than 7,000 people grounded when the United States closed its airspace in the wake of the attacks.
When Oz Fudge, played by Ottumwa native Harter Clingman, describes his multiple trips to the local store to pick up supplies, there’s sure to be a moment of recognition from anyone who has ever returned home only to realize they forgot obvious needs.
When a native New Yorker describes carrying out an assignment from a town’s mayor to “round up some grills” — essentially swiping them from backyards — his expectations don’t match the reactions of the locals. The scene is pitch-perfect, showing how big-city wariness and small-town openness collide. The scene’s denouement is an example of what Clingman in a December interview called Newfoundlanders’ capacity to be “infinitely kind and generous and funny.”
A true ensemble piece, there is no one star, and the cast all played multiple roles. Smart use of props and cues help the audience navigate the changes without much difficulty. Events flow seamlessly from one snapshot to the next. The performance has no intermission, and it’s hard to see where one could be inserted even if it was needed.
There is no show-stopping number, either. The closest the performance comes is “Me and the Sky,” a pilot’s reflection on how her career brought her to this moment. The pilot’s role is essential, acting as a reminder to the audience that the clock is ticking for everyone in multiple ways.
But “Come From Away” doesn’t need those grand moments. By focusing primarily on the occupants of just one of the 38 civilian planes forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, and their interactions with the townspeople, the performance avoids the overwhelming scale of the attacks. Instead, the audience sees the smaller dramas of those caught up in a situation they could never have expected or ever prepared for. One couple’s relationship breaks down under the strain. Another’s blossoms. And an anxious mother awaits word from her son, a firefighter in New York.
While the raw shock and emotions of the days that followed the attacks are inevitably in the audience’s mind, and are kept there by smart but brief reminders from the stage, the overwhelming response is not sorrow. Instead, the performance pays tribute to the ordinary, to those who responded to a terrifying situation with kindness instead of fear.
When part of humanity showed its worst face, the people of Gander showed one of its best. And, yes, it’s OK to laugh at how they did it.
After all, they’re laughing, too.