In the abandoned parking lot of the once luxurious Hummingbird Motel, a community of misfits gathers to celebrate the life of Miss Ruby, their elderly and beloved matriarch. So begins “Airline Highway,” a profound and tumultuous play written by Lisa D’Amour and premiering at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Named after Louisiana’s real Airline Highway, a road dotted with declining art-deco motels that once served as the main route from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, D’Amour’s play is set at the fictional Hummingbird Motel, significantly located between the airport and the heart of New Orleans. The people who live at the motel, an assortment of strippers, hookers and maintenance, club and bar workers, all have their own unique stories to tell and many are running away from dysfunctional pasts. Although the Hummingbird offers a place of belonging, many of these characters find themselves in the midst of shaky and unstable lives and are unable to confront who they really are.
Steppenwolf’s enchanting production brings to life the vibrant culture and deeply rooted traditions of New Orleans. Miss Ruby’s funeral is, ironically, unconventional but typical of the city’s jazz funerals. It is a celebration filled with primitive dancing, soulful singing, emotional stories, bright lights, and colorful costumes and decorations. As the party lingers on throughout the night, Miss Ruby remains upstairs in one of the motel rooms, unseen until she makes a profound appearance near the end of the play.
Scott Pask brilliantly designs a stage that is so realistic in its portrayal of the Hummingbird Motel that the audience can see and feel every detail, from the pieces of trash littered across the motel’s parking lot to the faded wallpaper and picture frames hanging inside individual rooms. Pask creates a motel that is very traditional in its appearance, with an ice machine on the ground floor, two floors of rooms with outdoor hallways blocked off by black railings, and a brightly lit, large and looming sign that shares the motel’s name. The motel’s parking lot is another important feature. Neglected except for an old red junker, it is at the center of the story, the meeting ground for all of the characters, and where every scene takes place.
Costume Designer David Zinn dresses each of the characters in clothes befitting their personalities and professions. The clothes, which start off simple and drab, reflecting the poor and struggling lifestyle of the Hummingbird’s tenants, transform into colorful and lively ensembles, accessorized with feather boas and Mardi Gras beaded necklaces, for Miss Ruby’s party.
The main actors and actresses are each phenomenal in their unique roles and speak with a raw and authentic southern dialect. Kate Buddeke as Tanya, one of Hummingbird’s older tenants and a former hooker, plays a loving but mixed up woman who is haunted by loss. Bait Boy, played by Stephen Louis Grush, is a former tenant of the motel whose respectable life in Atlanta comes crashing down when he returns to the Hummingbird and finds past habits quickly catching up with him. And then there’s K. Todd Freeman, another fabulous actor, who plays the outrageously funny, assertive and flamboyant Sissy Na Na. Most of these characters remain static throughout the play. The one exception is Zoe, Bait Boy’s young and impressionable stepdaughter played by Carolyn Braver, who starts out as a sheltered high school girl looking to interview the Hummingbird’s tenants for a school sociology project and who later becomes an active participant of the community.
Steppenwolf’s production of “Airline Highway” is a story full of contradictions, just like its characters, and reflects the imperfect realities of life, combining suffering with joy, individuality with community, and chaos with harmony.