by Loren Noveck · April 29, 2015
The company | Joan Marcus
There's nothing groundbreaking about Lisa D'Amour's Airline Highway, but it's full of small pleasures: rich character moments in the writing; wonderful performances by the entire ensemble cast (directed by Joe Mantello; many of them have traveled with this Steppenwolf production from its Chicago premiere, helping to give the roles a lived-in ease); the kind of hyper-detailed physical environment one tends to expect from Steppenwolf (designed by Scott Pask) that lets you almost smell the brewing coffee and taste the over-fussy finger sandwiches served at the play's central event (a funeral for the legendary, dying-but-not-yet-dead New Orleans burlesque star Miss Ruby); and a melancholy sense of place.
The place is the Hummingbird Hotel (the sign says "Motel" but the residents use the former name), on the titular Airline Highway in a post-Katrina New Orleans. The Hummingbird used to provide “luxury accommodations in the city that care forgot”: a pool with a swim-up bar, bathroom attendants to give out mints and hand towels, and a glamorous clientele. Now, it's more down on its luck, home to a “gorgeous group of fuck-ups” who mostly work in the service industry in the French Quarter: bartenders, bouncers, strippers. There are also a few more hangers-on who can't (or won't) afford a room but still consider the place the closest thing to a family home they've got.
A rundown motel with a forgiving manager is as good a place as any for these people hanging on to the margins of the city—but change is coming to even this neighborhood in a city still fighting to be something more than either a tragedy or a tourist trap. (The play, which takes place on a single day, is set during Jazz Fest, a running joke for the characters who want nothing to do with this most tourist-driven of New Orleans traditions, other than to make some money off its patrons.) The question is, what kind of change? It could go either way—on the one hand, corporate interests have brought Whole Foods to the neighborhood and are breaking ground on a Costco right across the street (something, as one of the characters points out, not terribly useful to economically strained people living in tiny motel rooms who might just want one roll of toilet paper). On the other, there's a “problem room” at the Hummingbird: occupied by a large group of young, unfriendly young men—many of the residents regard them with suspicion, but as the manager, Wayne, points out, they're the only ones paying their rent on time, and he’s being pressured by the owner to actually turn a profit on the place these days.
Today is a special day at the Hummingbird: the day of Miss Ruby's premature funeral, the event she supposedly asked for, but can barely remember now. Ruby was a storied burlesque artist who ran a club that provided a spiritual home for a generation of dancers and other misfits. Now, having lost her son and her club (two losses she can barely remember through a painkiller haze), she's slowly dying at the motel, looked after by her surrogate family, especially Sissy Na-Na, a transgender performer/bartender, and Tanya, a prostitute (but don't talk about her profession in front of Wayne). The two have big plans for this event, plans that include inviting Bait Boy, a former resident who's "made good," or at least gotten out—to Atlanta, with his "cougar" lover, Joyce, three years earlier.
But no one told Krista, Bait Boy's ex-girlfriend, that he'd be coming. Krista, a stripper who's currently not even able to afford her room at the Hummingbird, is in no mood to see her ex, and his impending arrival casts a shadow over the early part of the play, even as the others (Krista, Tanya, Sissy, Terry—perhaps the most emotionally stable resident, and sort of an unofficial handyman, Wayne, and Francis, a free spirit/poet who doesn't live there but comes by for the free coffee in the office every morning) scrounge cash for their assigned refreshments and decorate the parking lot.
When Bait Boy—who now insists on being called Greg—arrives with his sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, Zoe, in tow, and Zoe whips out her iPad and tries to start taking an oral history of their "subculture" for a school sociology project, the gap between Zoe’s world and theirs glares through every line. Zoe may be bored to tears by white suburban Atlanta, she may think she’s got genuine hardships in her life with her overstuffed slate of extracurricular activities and her stressful college applications, but what she sees as romantically risky, the rest of them just see as their often shitty lives: as Tanya says, “a road filled with construction and roadkill and booby traps and scam artists and bad decisions masquerading as good decisions and bad luck masquerading as good luck and bad friends masquerading as good friends and treachery lurking around every corner.”
True, sometimes their lives can seem unremittingly bleak; Miss Ruby had her glory days, but it seems like Krista and Tanya and Terry and Sissy have had nothing but hardship and heartbreak over and over again, with their stories getting grimmer the more we hear. And the moments of meaningful revelation are distributed so evenly across characters that it sometimes feels a little calculated. To me, the piece is strongest when it looks back at the history that brought them all here: The descriptions of Miss Ruby’s club, as all of them remember it with rainbow-tinted spectacles. Wayne’s long, meandering story about how he came to manage the Hummingbird, which starts with his immigrant great-grandparents and their hat shop, and never quite explains how he got there. Bait Boy lamenting the things he misses about life in New Orleans.
And the entire cast shines, in these moments and in their fierce if sometimes futile protectiveness of one another: Sissy (K. Todd Freeman), Tanya (the always wonderful Julie White) and Krista (Caroline Neff) working out the falsehoods Krista's going to tell Bait Boy rather than be ashamed of how far she's fallen. Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), drunk, getting seduced into reminiscing about the karaoke stage he used to run. Tanya and Sissy's dogged determination to make this party one of a kind, and Tanya’s mother-hen attitude to all of them. Sissy's hard-edged suspicion of Bait Boy's motives for returning. Wayne's (Scott Jaeck) tenderness toward Tanya. Miss Ruby’s (Judith Roberts) pink-tinted flashback to her glory days and the inspiration she was for them all. Even Zoe’s (Carolyn Braver) chirpy doggedness in pursuing her project.
D’Amour can occasionally be heavy-handed in parceling out moral lessons for her characters, and the ending, especially Zoe’s arc, feels a little too tidy. But there’s so much texture in the pacing and structure of the piece, with three mini-scenes often going on simultaneously, and so much to watch in the performances, that it’s a worthwhile journey even with an unsatisfying end.