This Show’s Message of Kindness Resonates Once Again

“Come From Away” veteran Astrid Van Wieren on the musical that’s an inspiration to audiences everywhere

| 15 Nov 2021 | 09:39

“Come From Away” tells the heartwarming story of what happened when 38 planes were forced to divert to Gander International Airport on September 11, 2001, and how the residents there welcomed the 7,000 stranded passengers into their small town — and their hearts. Audiences learn of all the lifelong friendships that were formed between the people of Gander and the “come from aways,” who were not just provided with a physical place to stay, but a profound sense of comfort during that tragic time.

The show made its Broadway debut on March 12, 2017, and because of another devastating period in history, it went dark three years later to the day. Actress Astrid Van Wieren said the first performances back after the COVID-19 shutdown were “incredibly electric,” with the Tony Award-winning musical’s poignant message resonating even more powerfully this time around. “The idea of being kind to your neighbor and taking care of each other during the pandemic ... People have lost relatives and people very close to them during this time,” she said. “They understand grief and loss again.”

A Canadian native, Van Wieren moved to New York to originate the role of Beulah Davis, whose character naturally radiates a maternal warmth on stage. Davis is a combination of two actual Newfoundland women — Beulah Cooper, who served at the Canadian Legion and Diane Davis, an elementary school teacher. Five years ago, the actress got to meet these real-life inspirations, and said the experience was like connecting with long-lost relatives.

A silver lining that came from the theater going dark was the fact that during the hiatus, “Come From Away” was taped and made into a movie which is now available on Apple TV+. This has opened up the show to a broader set of viewers, and also gives fans a chance to watch it over and over again. As for the feedback she receives on both the live and filmed productions, Van Wieren said, “People are like, “It makes me feel so good; it makes me want to be a better person.” We all could use some of that.”

I saw the show for the second time last night. It was just as wonderful as I remembered.

I am a fan of my own show, which is ridiculous, but I’m a huge fan of the show. It’s one of the best written things ever.

The audience learns so much about that day in Gander and the days that followed. What is something that surprised you?

I think just the extent of the generosity of the people of Gander and the surrounding towns. The fact that they didn’t just take care of people’s physical needs, like a place to stay, shower, something to eat. They actually also recognized that there were people who were in a kind of trauma situation and they befriended them. They organized; some people went moose hunting; some people went to concerts. They took them on little walks and stuff. So the fact that they extended themselves even further than the bare necessities was probably the most wonderful surprise.

Tell us about your character, who is a mix of two real-life women, and when you met them.

So my character is kind of a combination of Beulah Cooper, who ran the Legion and helped people out that way, but also, she became very close friends with Hannah O’Rourke, the mother of the firefighter, who I also met who was really lovely. And my character’s combined with a schoolteacher, Diane Davis, who also helped out a lot that day and really all the teachers. The same way Beverley Bass represents all the pilots, I represent all the teachers.

I met them, I think it was five years ago just this last month, going to do the concert. We did a concert in Gander for the real people and also some of the come from aways who also came. And it was kind of like meeting long-lost relatives. They did a really good job casting. They’re both really fun and loving people and they like a good joke. We met them sort of at this, it was almost like an awards ceremony slash prom slash wedding reception kind of feeling in the Gander International Airport. They had a big dinner for us and the ambassador to Canada from the U.S. was there that night. It was just really fantastic.

And then they came to see the concert, so I met them before they actually saw the show and saw themselves represented. And fortunately, they absolutely adored the show. They felt honored and well represented. The backstory to that is that sometimes people from Newfoundland have also been the butt of jokes because people are dumb sometimes. I think they were worried about how they would be represented, and they were represented as they truly are, which is salt of the earth.

You originated the role of Beulah. How has it evolved?

I did; I originated the role, although I also like to give a nod to the students ‘cause it was commissioned for students at Sheridan College for the Canadian Music Theatre Project. So they did a lot of work on it and all the original creative people who worked on it. But I did the first professional production and really it almost felt like a workshop ‘cause it changed a lot. We were there every day when they were trying out new things. I always say the spine and the heart of it never changed, but sort of the meat on the bones moved around a bit. They always had a pretty clear vision of how they wanted to tell the story and they grouped certain things together and the people that they wanted to follow.

I think Beulah and Claude [Elliot, the character who portrays the real-life mayor of Gander in 2001] kind of guide the audience through things a lot. We’re from the Newfoundland side. And that’s a real honor. I don’t know how much I really changed it, except to bring myself to it. And hopefully I’ve gone deeper every performance on some level.

What’s the camaraderie like among the cast? Are you all friends?

Yes, absolutely. I adore my castmates. They really are family. This kind of show, which is the kind of show you always hope for where you’re an actor — that it also means something and affects people — it affected us as well. I think most actors have a healthy ego and I would say we are all alpha dogs. We could all, in a sense, I don’t mean to toot my own horn, be a lead in a show. And so we share the stage, and even though we’re alpha dogs, we do that very well, because we recognize each other’s excellence and we support it.

You spent the lockdown in Canada. When did you come back to New York?

I came back in July. Many of us were here to do the movie.

What can you tell us about the movie? I saw an interview with you where you were saying there’s a much larger audience now.

It’s been really lovely. We shot it in April, so we all were in lockdown together, kind of bubbled in a hotel. It was kind of magic; we got to do our show and also have it filmed, capture it for people. The cool thing is you get to have some closeups, but I think Chris Ashley, our director, and everyone involved, really wanted it to be that ensemble feeling. So you really do feel like you’re watching the show, and then you get some treats, like you get to come in and see the little things you might not notice, how certain little changes happen. But, of course, there’s nothing compared to being live, because for me, you have this gorgeous community on stage. We represent community and we are a community. And then you have the audience, who by the end of it, I feel like they feel like they’re part of some special community having seen the show live together.