Strange as it seems, Gander, Newfoundland, was once a major air-travel hub, a refueling stop for transatlantic flights in the years before long-range jets made those stops unnecessary and turned the little Canadian town into a footnote in aviation history. Until 9/11, that is–when 38 airliners were forced to land in Gander, stranding nearly 7,000 passengers for days when U.S. airspace was closed.
Come From Away, a warm-spirited, often stirring musical about Gander’s week of impromptu hospitality, is as appealingly homespun as the townsfolk who hang out at Tim Hortons. The show was created (book, music and lyrics) by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a husband-wife songwriting team from Canada, who spent weeks in Gander interviewing people who were there during that traumatic time. The show was first staged at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2015 and has traveled North America–including back to Gander–before coming in for a smooth landing on Broadway.
Directed with stripped-down ingenuity by Christopher Ashley, the show is a kind of choral docudrama, weaving together stories of both the townspeople and passengers, set to an Irish- and country-flavored score. To accommodate their new guests, the locals set up shelters in schools and other public buildings and ransack store shelves for toothpaste and tampons. One stranded passenger frets over the fate of her son, a New York City firefighter. A gay couple from L.A. see their relationship fray under the stress, while a middle-aged Londoner and a Dallas divorcée strike up an improbable romance. People gripe, worry, drink, bond.
The show vividly re-creates the sense of confusion, dislocation and near panic in the hours after the attacks as the passengers sit cooped up on their plane for hours without any word on the nature of the emergency. The irritation and fears mount. One passenger, a Muslim man from Egypt, sets off an early version of extreme vetting–and paranoid alarms. Yet compassion and community spirit prevail. “Thank you for shopping at Walmart,” says a Ganderite. “Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?” It’s hard not to see all this through the prism of President Trump’s America, which makes the show touching and inspiring–but also a little nostalgic.
This appears in the March 27, 2017 issue of TIME.