About kindness and caring in the middle of nowhere

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, on an otherwise beautiful fall day, terrorists hijacked four planes in the skies over America. All of them were intentionally crashed; two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and one into a field in Pennsylvania.
At 9:42 a.m. that day, for the first time in history, the airspace over the United States was shut down and all ongoing private and commercial flights were ordered to land at the nearest airport.
Foreign flights approaching the East Coast were diverted to an airport in Gander, Newfoundland, and the 10,000 residents of this tiny town suddenly found their numbers almost doubled when 7,000 strangers on 38 planes landed at their airport. There were so many aircraft that the initial problem became where to park them all.
As word of the tragedy in America spread, the town rallied around the frightened strangers. Residents brought food, clothing, and comfort, opening their homes, and more importantly, their hearts, to their unexpected guests.
As USA Today stated, “To say this town of 10,000 people and its surrounding communities welcomed the passengers and crew from nearly 100 countries with open arms is an understatement. The town all but shut down for the ‘plane people,’” one of whom later remarked that after seeing the worst mankind was capable of on television, this was the best of mankind.
Residents refused to accept money for anything they provided to their guests. Much later, in appreciation, those who had been hosted in Gander sent gifts and donations that funded a new computer lab and created scholarships. Gratitude grew into enduring friendships.
The story of the town and those 7,000 stranded strangers who had “come from away” eventually inspired a musical of the same name.
“Come From Away” plays at the Citizens Bank Opera House from Nov. 5 to Nov. 17. Book, music, and lyrics are by Tony and Grammy Award nominees Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
Included in the cast is the award-winning actor Kevin Carolan, who played Teddy Roosevelt in “Newsies” on Broadway, on tour and in the feature film. Carolan has also been seen onstage in “Chicago,” in the film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and on television in “The Good Wife,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Boston audiences will remember him delivering “The Bare Necessities” in the Huntington Theater production of “The Jungle Book,” for which he received an IRNE Award.
I spoke with Kevin by phone when “Come From Away” was playing in Michigan. Here are excerpts from our chat.
Q. There’s a strong emotional edge to this show. From your standpoint, what makes it so special?
A. For us, the story is such a feeling of positivity and kindness and goodness. We, as actors, feel more like missionaries. We’ve got a vocation to tell the story, especially at this time around the country when this kind of news is so desperately needed . . . Every person in that audience brings their experience of 9/11 into the theater with them. And to be able to see the selflessness of the people of Gander and the grace under pressure from the people of the town who simply were just doing something because [they felt] you’d do it for them.
Q. Many Irish immigrants arriving in Canada between 1750 and 1830 favored Newfoundland. Is that presence reflected in the feeling of the show?
A. When you’re in Gander, which is the northeast tip of North America, it’s pretty much as close as you can get to the Emerald Isle. So there’s definitely a big musical influence. Our orchestra of eight is on stage. That includes a bodhran player. We’ve got somebody playing pipes as well, and fiddle. So that Celtic sense is very strong in this show. And I think it’s certainly one of the big draws . . . [plus] the sense of fun and playfulness that that music has to offer.
Q. Everyone takes on multiple roles in the show, but you also play a major figure.
A. We all play many characters. But one of the ones that I associate with most is the mayor of the town, Claude Elliot. That’s really who I refer to with grace under pressure. Just a stoic man of the town, of the people, and just unwaveringly optimistic.
Q. Does playing real people bring added responsibility?
A. It’s a thrill to be able to portray them. I’m proud that I actually got a chance to meet Claude this week, strangely for the first time. We’ve been touring for a year and Claude and I have missed each other . . . Finally, after a year, we got to hook up and exchange pleasantries. And it was really nice to spend a little time with him . . . It may be the first time that I’ve played someone who I can talk to and have a conversation with. And it’s a thrill that it’s somebody as personable as Claude.
Q. I know your heritage is very important to you and that you have dual citizenship.
A. My father’s parents both emigrated from Ireland in the mid 30s. My father’s father is from County Cavan. My mother’s side of the family, the Paddons, are from Mullet in Mayo . . . We’ve made several trips over there . . . My wife and I honeymooned in Ireland. My younger brother had done a semester in Limerick and did the legwork and got some of the birth certificates for my grandparents. I kept the ball rolling when he came back. Interestingly, the biggest delay in my getting my dual citizenship was the lack of a long form birth certificate from the Bronx. (Laughing) It was a little slower on the US side.
Q. You’ve performed in Boston in the past. Anything special you’re looking forward to doing while you’re in town?
A. I’m prepared to take another challenge at who has the best cannoli!
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Come From Away,” Nov. 5 – Nov. 17, Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St. 800-982-2787. BroadwayInBoston.com.