By Lisa D’Amour
Directed by Joe Mantello
Produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Ensemble Work Brings out Steppenwolf’s Best
Is it better to attempt a safe, stable life, or to expose oneself to wild emotional swings at the price of uncertainty and danger? In 2010, Lisa D’Amour posed that question at Steppenwolf in her play Detroit, which contrasted a struggling lower middle class couple with their younger, rougher neighbors. Now, she has returned, with the world premiere of the Broadway-bound Airline Highway. But while the plays ask similar questions, they are far apart in style. While Detroit was small and surreal, Airline Highway revels in gritty realism, and a massive ensemble cast of the sort Steppenwolf built its success on.
Upon entering the theatre, you’ll be amazed by the set designed by Scott Pask, a longtime collaborator of director Joe Mantello. Before you is the facade and parking lot of the Hummingbird, a faded New Orleans motel. It looks like a nasty place; there’s a rotting Honda and beer bottles strewn around the lot, a gutter pipe is cracked, the vending machine’s lights are out. But on the upper level there is a hanging potted plant, a strand of mini lights, and wind chimes. People actually live here. They are the friends, adopted family, and hangers-on of Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), a burlesque nightclub performer and manager who is now on her deathbed. She has requested a living funeral, so she can hear all the nice things people have to say about her before she goes, and the play opens on the morning of the party.
First among the guests is Krista (Caroline Neff), a stripper who used to live at the Hummingbird before she got behind on her rent. Then there is the handyman, Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), and the hotel manager, Wayne (Scott Jaeck). Living with Miss Ruby are Tanya (Kate Buddeke), a bony old hooker who declares her “pussy is still in fighting form,” and Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), a take-charge kind of transwoman. Joining them is the old hippie poet Francis (Gordon Joseph Weiss), who complains the tourists present for Jazz Fest won’t get the real New Orleans, because it’s all of them in the lot. And then there’s the oddball of the group: Bait Boy (Stephen Louis Grush), who used to be a personality at a karaoke bar, but has found a sugar mama in Atlanta, and now goes by “Greg” and dresses middle class. With him is the unexpected guest, his squeaky step-daughter Zoe (Carolyn Braver), who is studying sub-cultures for high school.
With such a large cast, there isn’t so much of an overarching plot as a series of mini-struggles. Several characters are in love with each other or running from something, including Krista, who Bait Boy left for his current wife, but who still dotes on him. Zoe asks Wayne at one point to explain how he got to be hotel manager, which he takes as an invitation to tell his life story. She quickly learns there’s no way to get to know everything about each of these people in a day. The play doesn’t put anybody in a massive amount of danger, but Bait Boy’s return and Zoe’s tactless questions do cause psychological unease among his old friends. Are they really happy, or is that just something they tell themselves because they, possibly wrongly, thought they had no other options? These people don’t lie to themselves about what they are, and yet, Krista feels compelled to tell Bait Boy she’s a paralegal who practices yoga and makes craft candles. She wonders why she does that.
Everybody in the cast gives an excellent performance, providing depth to the characters who can only get so much dialogue. Many of the conversations are overlapping, contributing to the notion it’s more important to get a feel for these people than to know all their specifics. Their pasts are pretty much what you’d expect, anyway. At one point in her endearing, often humorous performance as Tanya, Buddeke goes on a desperate monologue begging Zoe to acknowledge that their lives all matter. Weiss’s Francis is a man who has to put a lot of effort into being so care-free, and as Sissy, Freeman’s wig and nails may be put-on, but his resilience and perceptiveness don’t seem to be.
A play this size is blessed to have Mantello directing. Even blocking must have been a huge challenge with so many characters (there are a huge number of non-speaking parts), and yet everything feels smooth and stays visible. A design team that includes David Zinn (costumes), Japhy Weideman (lighting), and Fitz Patton (sound and music) keeps the party going while always maintaining that crucial balance between charm and sleaze. It helps that the space is not too intimate and there’s no way to recreate the humid highway smell.
Miss Ruby does not appear until near the end of the play, and when she does, it is one of the few departures from naturalism. She created this refuge because she dreamed of a world where people could be open and fearless with each other. Certainly, Zoe gets out of her comfort zone enough to appreciate new people. But D’Amour knows it isn’t really that simple, and though she allows Miss Ruby to present her opinion, D’Amour never resolves the question of whether risk or stability is better. You’ll likely come away from this play glad you’re not one of the people in it, but also aware of a part of the world you’re closed off from. And in that regard, Airline Highway lets you think you’ve glimpsed it.
Playing in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre at 1650 North Halsted Street. For tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.org. Runs through February 8; Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30 pm except Christmas and New Year’s Day, 3:00 pm performances on Saturdays, 2:00 pm on January 21, January 28 and February 4, 3:00 pm on Sunday, and 7:30 pm on December 21, December 28, January 4, and January 11. Tickets are $20-86. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.