There’s something about Sharon Wheatley that just sparkles.
You can see her shine on stage as Diane in the seven-time Tony-nominated musical “Come From Away” in a role she originated three years ago. I grasped her exuberance the moment she walked into a coffee shop a few blocks away from the Schoenfeld Theater, where she plays eight performances a week. Warmth exudes from her — it’s possibly a combination of her shock of red hair, her big loving eyes, and the way she spots me in the cafe:
“I should have known it was you, with your cute stickers and all!” she said referring to the plethora of college stickers I have on the back of my laptop. “I looked you up, and before you start I just have to know: why’d you choose Yale?”
And just like that, our interview kicked off — except Wheatley was interviewing me. I had spent the past few days wandering New York City on my fall break, indulging in the anonymity at various coffee shops and seeing shows alone. But here was someone who knew at least some part of my story, even via a Google search, and was genuinely interested to hear more. I felt the iciness of anonymity begin to melt away.
I gently reversed the flow of the interview by diving into the origins of “Come From Away.” Wheatley told me she had never heard of Newfoundland’s story until she read the script more than a decade after 9/11. “American airways were so saturated with what happened on our own soil that day,” she said. As the production process at La Jolla in San Diego kicked off, she found herself asking the same question over and over: Is this true?
She wasn’t the only one. “Come From Away” sources its power from the truth of these events that unfolded on an island off the coast of Canada. On September 11, 2001, a tiny town doubled in population when they welcomed 6,700 strangers off 30 planes that had been diverted from their destinations, due to the terrorist attacks. Along with the eight musicians in the band, the 12-person cast tell the story of both Newfoundlanders and newcomers, each character drawn from real-life inspirations.
Wheatley’s character, Diane, was inspired by Diane Marson, who met her future husband Nick Marson at a shelter in Newfoundland after her plane was diverted from landing in Houston. Their love story is a main tenant of “Come From Away.” Though minor parts are dramatized, it remains true to their story, even down to the poignant scene of the two looking out over Dover Falls, or a funny comment a flight attendant makes about their romance.
When Wheatley met Marson in 2015, the actress immediately took a liking to her. Not only did Wheatley adjust her accent to more closely match Marson’s, but also took on Marson’s outlook on life.
“We all have a spirit of similarity between the people we play and us. In some way we became more like the people we were playing,” Wheatley said, attributing it to good casting. “Diane is a very seize-the-day kind of person. It’s kinda awesome if you have the courage to do it. It’s a two part process. You have to look at the day you’re in–whatever that metaphor means to you — and say, is this all going the way I want it to? And how am I feeling? And looking and saying, is there a solution to me being happier? Is there something that I can do even if it’s really scary?”
In Diane Marson’s real-life case, it was deciding to be vulnerable to Nick Marson and falling in love with him, despite the darkest circumstances that brought them together. As impossibly heartwarming as it sounds, the Marsons were not the only ones who seized the day so to speak in the aftermath of 9/11 — the tragedy forced many to reevaluate their lives.
“Part of the thing about 9/11 in general, there was something that happened those days. People either got divorced, or they got married, or they had a baby or they moved. All of us, the one thing we needed to do for certain was to access our life,” said Wheatley. “It could end tomorrow in the most unlikely of ways. It was like a reckoning that day. For everybody. That I probably understand about Diane the most. Things have to get messy before they get better.”
Wheatley believes the events of 9/11 touched everyone’s lives, even young people like me and her daughters, in both explicit and implicit ways. We bring these emotions with us to the show. She told me her favorite parts of the musical are the opening and the curtain call, the two times the cast stands on the edge of the stage and looks out into the audience, taking in their reactions.
“When the show starts, I see people mouthing along, sometimes you see people singing I’m an Islander, or they’re just so surprised. In the end I think there’s been this pent up emotion for so long because there’s very little applause throughout the show and it just erupts,” she said. Not because she loves the attention, in fact she used to dread bowing at the end of other shows, but rather, in the curtain call for “Come From Away,” the applause isn’t for her. It’s for the real-life people of Newfoundland. “It’s awesome to see the audience get to emote. There’s something so cathartic about it, for all of us to come into the room and get to feel that there was something really wonderful happening at that time is a great moment.”
She has two daughters, one my age and one ten years old. Wheatley hopes that they carry the message of the show with them forever: that little things mean a lot. The people of Newfoundland opened their homes in the spirit of hospitality and compassion. That made all the difference.
“You don’t have donate a million dollars to a foundation to make a difference. These people showed kindness a sandwich and a shower at a time. They just sacrificed themselves. A little goes a long way,” she said. She hopes she lives out the message of the story. “We do a lot of kindness initiatives, a lot of pay-it-forwards. It is not uncommon if you’re in a coffee shop with somebody in my cast, they’ll pay for your coffee. Little tiny things, a four dollar coffee, can elevate somebody’s mood.”
Wheatley hopes to be as vulnerable and honest as her character in her day-to-day life. She believes the polarization of politics can begin to be solved with something as simple as a dinner with neighbor. “It’s so hard. It’s really hard. But maybe that’s what I want to say, do things that make you feel vulnerable,” she said.
As our interview comes to a close, she hypothesizes that out of the 12-person cast, the PR team selected her for our interview because she’s the only one with kids. Before she leaves, she asks me if I need anything at all during my stay in New York, to reach out to her. I ask if she mothers the rest of the cast like this and she nods, grinning. After she says goodbye, I am left thinking they’re the luckiest cast in the world. Because here in the middle of New York, a city of missed connections and hustle and bustle, one connection had been made: Wheatley making an effort to be vulnerable in our interview, recognizing me as more than a mere reporter, and affirming my presence, essentially declaring one of “Come From Away’s” taglines: you are here.
New block of tickets now on sale through June 16, 2019. Visit https://comefromaway.com for more information.