Bold, engaging 'Airline Highway' a show worth seeing

  • The residents of New Orleans' Hummingbird Motel celebrate the life of mother-figure Miss Ruby in Steppenwolf Theatre's world premiere of Lisa D'Amour's "Airline Highway."

    The residents of New Orleans' Hummingbird Motel celebrate the life of mother-figure Miss Ruby in Steppenwolf Theatre's world premiere of Lisa D'Amour's "Airline Highway." courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Sissy Na Na (Steppenwolf Theatre's K. Todd Freeman) celebrates the outcasts and fringe dwellers who reside along the "Airline Highway," Lisa D'Amour's new drama directed by Joe Mantello.

    Sissy Na Na (Steppenwolf Theatre's K. Todd Freeman) celebrates the outcasts and fringe dwellers who reside along the "Airline Highway," Lisa D'Amour's new drama directed by Joe Mantello. courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), second from right, is surrounded by her ersatz family -- Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), left, Tanya (Kate Buddeke), second from left, and Wayne (Scott Jaeck), right -- during her "funeral" in Lisa D'Amour's "Airline Highway," in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre.

    Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), second from right, is surrounded by her ersatz family -- Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), left, Tanya (Kate Buddeke), second from left, and Wayne (Scott Jaeck), right -- during her "funeral" in Lisa D'Amour's "Airline Highway," in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre. courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Posted12/19/2014 6:00 AM

If there is an heir apparent to the late Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who chronicled society's fringe dwellers in such plays as "Balm in Gilead" and "Hot L Baltimore," Lisa D'Amour might be it.

In fact, D'Amour's "Airline Highway" -- in a superbly acted, pre-Broadway premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre -- shares some striking similarities with "Hot L Baltimore," which Steppenwolf memorably revived in 2011.

 

Both are poignant life snapshots that unfold over the course of a long day at rundown, SRO-type hotels. Both are vividly written and reflect a keen sense of place. Both contain meaty, compelling characters -- drug users, prostitutes, odd-jobbers and alcoholics as well as the occasional prodigal son -- who are all but invisible to Joe and Jane Average Citizen.

And both recognize, even celebrate, the community these outsiders have established, the families they've created and the lives they've carved out for themselves in the wake of bad breaks and their own bad decisions.

That said, D'Amour hasn't assumed Wilson's mantle yet. She writes credibly and compassionately, but the second act needs tweaking. The coda -- where a teenage outsider recalls her encounter with a community on the fringe -- is superfluous, weakening a quiet but powerful passing-the-torch moment a few scenes earlier that makes a stronger conclusion.

Still, this is a show worth seeing. Fluidly staged with clear-eyed empathy by Joe Mantello ("The Last Ship," "Wicked") and voraciously acted by some of the Chicago area's best, it's a bold, engaging work by a playwright on her way to becoming an American master.

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The action unfolds outside the Hummingbird Motel, one of those decrepit "no-tell" joints located in the shadow of New Orleans' airport. Expertly and authentically conceived by set designer Scott Pask (right down to the broken soda machine and broken gutter), it's become a sanctuary for its residents -- whose tough exteriors mask damaged souls. They use the motel's walled-in parking lot as a gathering place, an outdoor family room, which Pask transforms in the second act into an eye-popping, exquisitely gaudy, albeit temporary, oasis.

We meet these longtime residents the day of Miss Ruby's "funeral," which the ailing, 80-something former burlesque star and mother-figure (played with quiet grace and compassion by the regal Judith Roberts) has requested take place before she dies.

Organizing the fete is Tanya (the always visceral Kate Buddeke), a middle-aged hooker whose preoccupation with party details provides a temporary distraction from her addiction. Helping her is Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman, commanding as ever), a tough-talking. deeply caring transvestite and Ruby's de facto caretaker, who will presumably take over as matriarch after she's gone.

Also on hand are motel manager Wayne (Scott Jaeck, pitch-perfect as a man who knows he's missed something, somewhere), handyman Terry (the nicely enigmatic Tim Edward Rhoze) and aging hippie and resident philosopher Francis, played with gentle understatement by Gordon Joseph Weiss.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The real fest," Francis insists, "is on the edges." Where real life -- the gritty, hardscrabble kind -- exists and the Hummingbird residents dwell.

It's where Krista (the terrific, very real Caroline Neff who inhabits that elusive spot between toughness and vulnerability), a young stripper now homeless, once lived. And it's where her former boyfriend Bait Boy (Stephen Louis Grush, compelling for his cool restraint and volcanic passion) returns after a long absence. A former karaoke host with a taste for underage girls, Bait Boy -- who goes by Greg -- married his sugar mama and moved to Atlanta years earlier. With him is his 16-year-old stepdaughter Zoe (a spot-on Carolyn Braver) who wants to interview the residents for a sociology paper on urban subcultures.

Conflict ensues, of course, and not just between Bait Boy and Krista. Was he right to abandon his community for security? Will the tribe accept him again if he returns? And why would he want to? Living on society's fringe is a perilous existence -- made more so by the Costco under construction across the highway, which could destroy their sanctuary even if they don't realize it. Outsiders and oddballs, after all, won't be welcome along the new, improved "Airline Highway."

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