ARGYLE, Texas — When Beverley Bass was a little girl, she fell in love with a statue of Icarus and jumped off the washing machine in her home to simulate flight.
The Dallas Morning News reports her passion for flying continued as she watched planes take off at her local airport in Fort Myers, Florida, thanks to an aunt who drove her again and again to her favorite place.
Undeterred by only seeing male pilots, she became the third female pilot hired by Fort Worth-based American Airlines and the first to make captain. Retired now and living in nearby Argyle, Texas, she has used her flight benefits more than 60 times to see the Broadway musical “Come From Away” and looks forward to seeing it a lot more.
The musical tells the true story of how the 9,400 residents of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada, welcomed the 7,000 passengers on 38 planes that had been diverted from landing in New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks took down New York’s Twin Towers and hit the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 and injuring more than 6,000.
Bass was one of the pilots who detoured to Gander. In “Come From Away,” which has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, including best musical, actress Jenn Colella plays Bass. Colella, who has become Bass’ close friend, is nominated for a Tony for best featured actress in a musical. The awards will be presented Sunday night in New York.
The show, created by the Canadian husband and wife team of Broadway newcomers Irene Sankoff and David Hein, opened March 12 at New York’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. It’s based on extensive interviews the couple did with locals and returning passengers and crew, including Bass, in 2011, during the 10th anniversary Gander reunion. The song, “Me and the Sky,” that Colella sings as Bass, is taken from Bass’ own words of her passion for flying and how desperately the grounded pilot wanted to get back into the air.
“I still laugh, I still cry,” Bass says, sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter of her cozy, gracious home, packed with souvenirs and photos of her flying days and of the musical. “And at the end of the show, I’m exhausted. I am so proud and so happy. I never get tired of it.”
At the heart of the story is the healing power of kindness. When Bass and the others landed, they were shell-shocked by the horrible things that people could do to each other. Some worried about the fate of loved ones. Others, like Bass, were anxious because they couldn’t get word to their families to assure them of their safety. The people of Gander opened their homes to the visitors and got to work cooking, baking, providing diapers, medicine and fresh clothes and tending the 19 animals in cargo.
The passengers, who are played by the same actors who play the villagers, are at first suspicious, scared and angry. During the five days that they wait for clearance to take off, the people in Gander shower them with love and care. Defenses crumble. Two passengers, who had been strangers to each other, fall in love and marry. That’s based on the true story of Nick and Diane Marson of Spring, Texas, who have also seen the show multiple times.
For Bass, frustrated as she waited to get her passengers and herself home to Dallas, where her husband and two young children waited anxiously, this forced pause in her schedule brought an unexpected gift: a reminder of “a gentler and more simple way of life.”
She recalls the shock of 9/11 as if it just happened. She was soaring at 39,000 feet, carrying 155 passengers from Paris back home to Dallas on her Boeing 777. She was enjoying a lunch of steak and potatoes with her co-pilot, when she heard the horrifying news on her plane’s radio.
She didn’t share details with her passengers, telling them only: “There has been a crisis in the United States, all of the airspace is closed and we will be landing our airplane in Gander, Newfoundland.” On landing, she updated the passengers. Everyone was stuck on the planes until the next day. As soon as they were released, the townspeople welcomed them into their homes, the Knights of Columbus Hall and, in Bass’ case, the Comfort Inn.
The people of Gander stayed up all night cooking so that the passengers would have hot meals. They played music. They made their guests honorary villagers in a ceremony that involves kissing a fish.
In a journal that Bass wrote after the experience, she noted: “In retrospect, my fondest memory is of two senior ladies who waited with us one dark and stormy night as we braved the rain and wind trying to return to our motel. Of course, they recognized us as Americans. None of us kept a dry eye as one of the ladies opened her bag. She pulled out a small accordion and began to play ‘God Bless America.’ My response: ‘God bless the people of Gander!” I cried!”
The first time Bass saw the musical was in La Jolla, California, in 2015, when someone at the La Jolla Playhouse called to invite her to the show. She went to see it at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in Seattle in 2015, the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto in 2016 and, most movingly, Oct. 29, 2016, in Gander, where the show played in the town’s biggest venue, the 2,500-seat ice hockey rink, before heading to Broadway.
“The most terrifying thing was when they took the show to Gander,” Bass says. “The biggest concern of the writers was that they wanted the Ganderites to feel proud. They didn’t want them to feel they were being made fun of. At the very first song, ‘Welcome to the Rock,’ the audience went wild. They gave a standing ovation 10 minutes before the show was over. They were screaming and clapping so loud, they could hardly hear the end of it.”
For Bass, not only is the story authentic, but the simplicity of the staging captures the unfussy nature of the people she came to know and love. The musical is told with 12 chairs that alternate as airline seats and chairs in a pub, two tables and real trees that were cut down from the Adirondacks for the set by Tony Award-winning designer Beowulf Boritt, who designed the set for Dallas Theater Center’s “All the Way” last year.
These rootless trees, which evoke the scent and look of Gander, have begun, in yet another incredible twist to this improbable story, to sprout leaves in between mounted stage lights.
For Bass, those leaves are a reminder of hope in unexpected places.
“What I want people to take away is how wonderful the people in Gander are. In the midst of one of the most terrifying tragedies, they showed us the other side of humanity. Friendships were made that will last a lifetime.”
This story has corrected the spelling to became, not become, in 3rd paragraph.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
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