Airline Highway Soars in Broadway-Bound Production at Steppenwolf Theatre

Airline Highway Soars in Broadway-Bound Production at Steppenwolf Theatre
The cast of Airline Highway. Photo: Michael Browilow

The Hummingbird Motel sits along a desolate stretch of Louisiana’s “Airline Highway” in playwright Lisa D’Amour’s (Detroit, Cherokee) Broadway bound world premiere of “Airline Highway” now on stage at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.

The Hummingbird is one of many tattered single occupancy motels on the road leading to the glitz and glamour of the Big Easy.

D’Amour uses this motif as a device to explore the nature of community and belonging.  The Pulitzer Prize finalist playwright zeros in on the essence of life itself by exposing the good, the bad and the ugly of the residents of The Hummingbird.

The rag-tag assortment of inhabitants include a prostitute, a drag queen, a stripper and a poet among others–an underclass of the tired, poor, and huddled masses. Many are long-time residents of The Hummingbird where, to all outward appearances, they exist in a dysfunctional community–yet “the community” seems to function as a type of family for them.

D’Amour has chosen her hometown of New Orleans as the setting explaining that “This play is a celebration of NOLA natives and longtime locals; the people who have built the city and made it what it is. I am interested in telling the story of New Orleaneans who have lived through it all — and continue to do so, on the fringes and behind the scenes.”

The story unfolds in The Hummingbird’s parking lot where the residents have gathered to celebrate the life of Miss Ruby (played by the amazing Judith Roberts).

Miss Ruby, an iconic burlesque queen, (based on the real life New Orleans legend Chris Owens, who still performs on Bourbon Street) has been a mother figure to them all. But now as she nears the end of her life journey, she has requested that her funeral is to take place while she is still alive.

The funeral takes on a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere thanks to the magnificent artistry of Scott Pask’s extravagant set and David Zinn’s colorful costumes.  As the celebration continues on and on through the night we learn the stories of the residents and feel their pain and disappointments.

 K. Todd Freeman as Sissy Nana

K. Todd Freeman as Sissy Nana

It takes a village to pull off this production. In this case, a cast of 26 that includes a talented mix of Steppenwolf ensemble members with standout K. Todd Freeman playing  black transvestite Sissy NaNa who serves as the moral compass for the group and Big Apple’s  Joe Mantello (“The Last Ship”) at the rudder as director.

As the residents prepare and then gather for the funeral, we learn more. There’s Wayne (Scott Jaeck) who manages The Hummingbird–a likeable older guy who tells his stories whether anyone listens or not; then there’s Tanya (Kate Buddeke), the prostitute with a heart of gold and a heap of inner turmoil;  young stripper Krista (Caroline Neff), dreams of a better life but isn’t sure how to get there while hippie-poet Francis (Gordon Joseph Weiss) sees the world his way.

D’Amour provides an interesting outside lens from which to view the community by bringing back former bad-boy resident, turned straight, Bait Boy (Stephen Louis Grush) and his 16-year-old neophyte stepdaughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver) toting her ipad so that she can interview the “community members” for a sociology project.

D’Amour’s “Airline Highway” is the perfect motif for the road we all must travel called life.

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Highly recommended.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Tickets and information:

Tickets ($20 – $86) are available through Audience Services (1650 N Halsted St), 312-335-1650 or online by clicking here.  “Airline Highway” continues through February 8, 2015 on Steppenwolf Theatre’s Mainstage, 1650 N. Halsted St.

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