PPAC presents ‘Come From Away’

PPAC presents ‘Come From Away’

On Sept. 11, 2001, Beverley Bass was piloting an American Airlines passenger jet over the Atlantic, en route from Paris to Dallas. “An airplane in front of us radioed to say that a plane had hit the World Trade Center,” she said during our recent phone interview. “We all thought it was a small aircraft. But 20 minutes later, they told us about a second plane, and the word ‘terrorists’ was mentioned, and then it got real.”

Bass was ordered to land her plane as soon as possible on Gander, a small town on the Canadian island of Newfoundland. “It’s a giant rock in the middle of the ocean,” says Bass. “They landed 38 wide bodies there that day. I was number 36 out of 38.”

Here we are 18 years later, and Bass is helping promote “Come From Away,” running through Dec. 8 at the Providence Performing Arts Center. The Tony Award-winning musical focuses on the five days post-9/11 on Gander, where the population suddenly swelled by 7000 stranded people.

In 2011, Bass was the only pilot to return to Gander to mark the 10th anniversary. “News people were there, and they were looking for five-second sound bites.” But playwrights Irene Sankoff and David Hein where also there, and they interviewed Bass for four hours. That interview, and others like it, morphed into “Come From Away.” The musical opened in La Jolla in 2015, and Bass was invited to see it.

Bass is one of the show’s featured characters. “It’s not that I did anything special. I was the only pilot they interviewed, and it enhanced the story because I am a female.” In fact, Bass became American’s first female captain in 1986, and later was part of American’s first all-female flight crew.

Since the show opened, Bass has seen it 145 times. “They’ve never asked me to fill in, but I do know every word. I just sit back and watch. I am portrayed so beautifully.”

She remembers how air travel changed dramatically in the time after 9/11. “Airports were empty, we were flying with three passengers on board. So many pilot jobs just went away. People were just not traveling. It was a lost decade in our world.”

But Bass says she was never afraid to fly. “Procedures changed, but I wasn’t going to let Bin Laden ruin my life.” She says she did know the captain whose plane flew into the Pentagon. “We were in the same class, lived in the same apartment building for a while.”

The show runs for 100 minutes without an intermission. “There’s no intermission, because we didn’t have one for five days.” In all, 12 actors portray 78 different people in the show. Pilots, flight attendants, passengers, and residents of Gander. There are currently five different companies of the show, playing in four countries on three continents, eight times a week.

Bass retired from American Airlines in 2008 at the age of 56, but she still flies today. And she spends a lot of her time helping to promote the show, doing interviews like ours. “I do a lot of public relations work for the show.”

“There have to be a couple of sad moments in the show,” says Bass, “or it couldn’t be a true story. But the show doesn’t dwell on the sadness. You walk out feeling happy.”

“Come From Away” runs through Dec. 8 at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Call the box office at 401-421-ARTS or visit www.ppacri.org for tickets and information.