Musical remembers the day air travel came to a halt

Air passengers grounded by 9/11 discover Canadian hospitality in Come From Away. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

Sometimes you need a reminder that human beings are capable of kindness. Come From Away—a touring production of which is now playing Columbus’s Ohio Theatre—is just such a reminder.

The Irene Sankoff/David Hein musical is a breezy and heartwarming account of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

When commercial airlines were ordered to land their planes out of fear that more could be commandeered and turned into flying bombs, the small Canadian community was forced to accept 38 or them. That nearly doubled its population and presented it with the sudden need to feed and house 7,000 strangers, many of whom didn’t even speak English.

As the musical reveals, the Newfoundlanders responded with ingenuity and generosity, providing food, shelter, clothes and other necessities. Even more importantly, they made the waylaid passengers feel safe and welcome in a world that suddenly seemed more dangerous than ever.

Director Christopher Ashley, who won the musical’s sole Tony Award after it opened on Broadway in 2017, stages five days’ worth of events in a fast-paced production that seldom even stops for applause. It’s a marvel of efficiency thanks partly to Beowulf Boritt’s set and Howell Binkley’s lighting, both of which are versatile enough to allow locations and moods to be changed in the blink of an eye.

Adding to the efficiency are 12 busy cast members who portray a multitude of both locals and visitors with the help of costume tweaks and an array of accents. While this is essentially an ensemble piece, several characters and the actors who play them are given a chance to stand out. Among them:

• Janice (Julia Knitel), a newbie TV reporter who’s overwhelmed by what undoubtedly will be the biggest story of her career.

• Nick and Diane (Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson), an Englishman and Texan who turn to each other for friendship and perhaps more.

• Kevin T. and Kevin J. (Jeremy Woodard and Nick Duckart), a gay couple who stress over how open to be about their relationship in this isolated community.

• Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), a passenger who’s desperate to learn whether her son, a New York firefighter, is safe.

• Bonnie (Sharone Sayegh), director of the area SPCA, who takes it on herself to seek out and care for the cats, dogs and other animals trapped in the cargo areas of the grounded planes.

Members of the band cut loose during one of the musical’s more raucous moments. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Note: Bonnie’s real-life counterpart, Bonnie Harris, appeared at a local preview event late last year to help publicize Gander’s connection to Central Ohio. Namely, two of the endangered great apes known as bonobos (referred to in the play as “bonobo chimpanzees”) were among the animals, and one of them was a female destined for the Columbus Zoo. The audience greeted this bit of information with applause on opening night, accidentally covering up the additional announcement that the zoo named her first son “Gander” in honor of the town that had served as her temporary refuge.

Despite the musical’s strengths, it must be said that one point near the beginning seems briefly off. When Gander officials and residents learn of the Sept. 11 attacks, they instantly begin planning how to deal with the diverted flights. Considering what a shocking event 9/11 was for America and the world, didn’t anyone stop long enough to say, “Terrorists did what?” Overall, though, Come From Away does an admirable job of condensing five days’ worth of individual trauma and communal kindness into an inspiring and uplifting 100 minutes.  

And it does it with a collection of tunes that are nicely sung by the actors and energetically accompanied by the offstage band. Though the songs mainly serve the plot and characters and rarely stand out, they become more and more infectious as the evening goes on. Best of all is the Irish-flavored “Finale” that accompanies the final bows and continues long after the actors have left the stage.

In other words, don’t plan on making a quick exit.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Come From Away through Feb. 13 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission). Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased at the CBUSArts Ticket Office (39 E. State St.), online at capa.com or by phone at 614-469-0939.

Tale of hero’s ordeal marred by stereotypical depiction of woman journalist

Richard Jewell crowd control
The title character (Paul Walter Hauser) tries to keep bystanders safe from an imminent bombing in Richard Jewell. (Photos by Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Richard Ades

Richard Jewell is the fact-based story of a hero who was turned into a pariah by the media and the FBI. Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of the scandal would be rather effective if it weren’t guilty of the same kind of injustice.

The real-life Jewell was working as a security guard during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when he happened upon a suspicious-looking backpack that had been abandoned at a public concert. He alerted the police, who reluctantly investigated and found three pipe bombs inside. Jewell then helped police clear the area, so that when the bombs went off, many members of the public were injured, but only one was killed.

Jewell was at first celebrated for saving lives, but he soon became the FBI’s prime suspect because he fit the profile of a ne’er-do-well who would create such a disaster in order to cast himself as the hero. When the media got hold of this theory, Jewell was effectively tried in the press even though he hadn’t been officially charged.

Eastwood’s account of the injustice, scripted by Billy Ray, begins slowly and effectively. Jewell (a pitch-perfect Paul Walter Hauser) is depicted as an individual whose lifelong dream of becoming a police officer is undercut by his gung-ho attitude. At one point, he loses a job as a college security guard because he insists on barging into dorm rooms and even stopping cars on the highway in order to enforce campus rules.

Stymied in his career and perpetually ridiculed because of his weight and because he lives with his mother (Kathy Bates), Jewell considers himself a loser. In other words, the FBI’s suspicions following the bombing are not completely out of left field.

What is out of left field is Eastwood’s depiction of Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the story. From the moment she appears, Scruggs (Olivia Wilde in full balls-out mode) comes off as the kind of anything-for-a-story journalist who is more prevalent in movies than in real life.

So single-minded is Scruggs that when the bombs go off in Atlanta’s Centennial Park, her first response is not to express concern for the victims but to pray for a scoop: “Dear God, whoever did this, please let us find him before anyone else does.” (I’m not kidding. Eastwood and Ray actually have her saying this.) Later, apparently not content to rely on divine intervention, she literally trades sex for an FBI agent’s tip on the bureau’s suspicions.

Richard Jewell layer
Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, right) is comforted by his attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).

Obviously, the FBI doesn’t come off too well here, as the agent (played by Jon Hamm as an extension of the corruptible Don Draper) allows himself to be manipulated into sharing investigative secrets. And it comes off even worse when the bureau ignores evidence that it has the wrong suspect.

But it’s Scruggs who comes off the worst, especially in the movie’s fabricated claim that she was willing to prostitute herself for a story. This ludicrously exaggerated portrayal is a slap not only at the late reporter but at every woman journalist who dares to take her job seriously.

This being 2019, and Eastwood being the conservative who once pretended a chair was Barack Obama at the Republican National Convention, it’s also tempting to interpret the movie’s denigration of the media and the FBI as a reflection of the current president’s continuous attacks on the Fourth Estate and the so-called “deep state.” Fairly or not, many will see the film as a product of its times and its director’s biases.

If one is able to divorce Richard Jewell from politics and from its outdated depiction of a woman journalist, it has much to recommend it. Besides Hauser’s portrayal of the title character, it boasts relatable performances by Bates as Jewell’s supportive mom; Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant, the friend who reluctantly becomes his defense attorney; and Nina Arianda as the lawyer’s immigrant/secretary.

Bryant’s attempt to help a good man reclaim his reputation adds up to absorbing drama. It’s just a shame that it’s weakened by the movie’s own dive into character assassination.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Richard Jewell (rated R) opens Dec. 13 at theaters nationwide.