Will the real Diane please stand up?
WELCOME to Sharon Wheatley’s Dressing Room. It is shared with Q. Smith, playing Hannah, and has changed since I was last here photographing Q. There’s a new wall color and certainly more fan love. They might as well get cozy; they’re going to be here a while. The dressing room is adorned with thoughtful gifts Sharon’s received since opening Come From Away, including a sentimental bracelet with the Gander airport coordinates.
I love walking backstage of the Schoenfeld Theatre. The heart of Come From Away doesn’t stop beating when the curtain goes down—it is a never-ending presence. Come From Away beautifully inhabits its walls; the cast and crew are all so lovely and welcoming.
“I have a surprise for you!” exclaims Sharon as I enter her dressing room. “It’s never happened before, so I think this is very exciting.”
My mind starts racing—is it a first edition Come From Away book; a piece of jewelry only shared with cast and crew; juicy information on the Come From Away movie?!
“This is an essential part of my process,” Sharon says as she reaches under the sink for her coffee machine.
“Coffee or tea?” I ask.
“Cooooooffee!” Sharon stressed. “Hold on - my wife just texted me.”
“Is your wife so proud of you?” the romantic in me asks.
“She is,” she answers.
I start from the beginning.
“What was your audition like?”
“Well, I was feeling like it was going really well,” she said, “When as I put my hand on the doorknob, they asked if I played any instruments. That’s when I wanted to lie and say that I played the accordion, but I didn’t. I went home thinking I didn’t get it.”
“Oh, hold on!” stops Sharon. “I have to get my milk, which I keep in Astrid’s refrigerator next door.”
30 seconds later, the whole photo-shoot transforms.
“I hear your surprise!” She calls from the hall. Confused, I stand ready to photograph whoever is about to walk through the door. I hear a southern twang and immediately I know who it is.
“Are you ready?” And in walks Diane, who had never been to the dressing room.
“This is unreal!” I shout, stunned.
“Is this ok? I just turned this on its head,” says Sharon.
I’m speechless. This is better than okay.
“Good grief,” Diane says. “This is my younger self!”
Diane Marson is the real-life inspiration for Sharon’s role. She, as written in the musical, was a passenger on a plane that was diverted to Gander on 9/11. Her story is unique and utterly captivating, and Sharon performs a stunning portrayal of Diane in the show. She’s brilliantly open and simple in her choices. She makes the character relatable to everyone in the audience. Seeing the two of them together is a testament to her beautifully intricate work.
“My bangs won’t stay straight because it is just too humid outside,” Sharon says as she starts to do her hair.
“Oh, mine is just pieced together with mousse and hairspray… then it got wet on the walk,” responds Diane.
I feel honored to be observing their relationship in real time.
“The first time we saw each other,” Diane says, “was at La Jolla. I had never seen a picture of her. She had seen my picture from Operation Yellow Ribbon. Sharon ran over and it’s been a love fest ever since!”
“I was worried about it, though,” admits Sharon. “I was worried that I was going to offend you. That I was going to be… I don’t think I’m brassy, but I think there’s a balance that you and I share of shyness and a sense of outgoingness. I was worried that my outgoingness was going to be way more than yours and then I realized that I’m the closest to being Sharon Wheatley in Screech In. My normal is you with two drinks in you!”
I’m not sure they ever had this conversation before.
“I heard you say, ‘Well there you are!’ and I listened to your voice,” continued Sharon. “It was low. And your demeanor… and I remember thinking, ‘ok’. Before I met Diane, I started creating her with nerves. I was nervous to be in the rehearsal room. Diane starts the show nervous and I started to play into that, but the writing is so good that by the time I felt comfortable on stage, so did Diane. I, as Sharon, will share anything and tell you anything, so I played her with a very open heart. I also knew that it would be on Diane to instigate moving forward with Nick.”
“That's why I grabbed him and kissed him!” says Diane. “For the most part, Englishmen are a little more reserved coming on to a lady that they are not used to. I didn’t want him to get away. I remember thinking that was my time.”
“What do you think would have happened if you didn’t?” asks Sharon.
“I don’t know. We probably would have had dinner in Houston and then went our separate ways. With our ages, we just have to be decisive. It’s now or never,” says Diane.
Sharon starts to recall rehearsals. "The first time we kissed, I warned him and said, ‘I’m coming in!’. And he just said, ‘Chapstick’. So my opening night presents were chapstick and two beers.”
Come From Away reminds us to constantly celebrate life. As Diane says, “The only reason we met was because this terrible thing happened.”
I am compelled to ask Diane how she feels that positive things continue to come out of such an awful day.
“We went to Newfoundland for our honeymoon in 2002. We were approached at the airport by reporters, like The Today Show, asking if we would be back for the anniversary. We said no, but reporters followed us to our friend’s house. We weren’t there to talk to anyone - we just wanted to see our friends,” says Diane.
“We told our friends that we wanted to host a dinner. Instead of letting us pay for it, they got donations from Wal-Mart and gave us a wedding reception. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had champagne at our table and everyone else had apple juice because they couldn’t afford it.”
“It’s so Newfoundland though, you went to give back to them - but they still gave back to you,” Sharon jokes.
That is sort of the theme with Come From Away. The show is so full of love, light, and beauty - that it will always give to whoever enters the Schoenfeld Theatre.
Come From Away is currently playing an open run on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on 45th street. Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein; Directed by Christopher Ashley