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Chicago by John Olson

Airline Highway
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's reviews of Twist Your Dickens and Newsies

The Cast
It may be that "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," but even without such a catchy ad slogan, New Orleans' French Quarter has long been the place to escape the moral constraints of American society and its Puritan background. It's the place to, as the song says, "take a walk on the wild side." But maybe just a walk. As one of Lisa D'Amour's characters explains in this play now in its world premiere production at Steppenwolf, one can be unhappy from being too bottled up or be unhappy from being too loose. Her characters in Airline Highway chose the latter and we see that life is no cabaret for these old chums. They're the people who tend to the tourists in some fashion or other—as bar employees, drag performers, strippers or prostitutes or just hangers on. They may have been attracted to their line of work thinking it would be like partying for a living, but they've learned it's not so great cleaning up after drunken revelers and that this life takes a physical and emotional toll.

D'Amour's play is set at the Hummingbird Motel, once a respectable-enough inn with a pool set somewhere on Airline Highway. That road was once the main route from the Quarter to the airport, but it's long since been bypassed by Interstate 10, and this motel has gone to seed. Scott Pask's set brilliantly puts a two-story exterior of the motel on stage. Rooms here rent by the day, week or month, but some of the residents have been living there for years. The parking lot is their gathering spot and on the day on which the play's action occurs, it'll be the site of a blowout funeral party for Miss Ruby, the former nightclub owner who, though dying, is still alive and wants her funeral before she passes. The party provides an occasion for some departed residents to return and for those still living there to hang out in the lot.

Airline Highway is strongly reminiscent of Lanford Wilson's The Hot l Baltimore for its seedy inn setting and general premise, to his Balm in Gilead for its overlapping dialogue, and to both for its look at a community of losers. It's a good addition to the genre, though. Who among us has stopped to wonder about the Orleanians who provide us such an authentically edgy environment when we visit there for our period escapes from reality? New Orleans native D'Amour has a great sense for these people, and Joe Mantello has assembled a superb and mostly Chicago-based cast to bring them to life. (Mantello and the production will move to Broadway and the Manhattan Theatre Club in April.)

The performances are mostly wonderful, starting with Kate Buddeke's heartbreaking portrait of Tanya, a middle-aged hooker. Tanya gave up her children for adoption and is now trying to be a mother hen of sorts as Miss Ruby has become too ill to serve that function for this makeshift family. She's easily hurt—failure of the others to follow her menu for the funeral party can send her into tears—and she struggles with addiction of some sort. As Tanya, Buddeke is palpably desperate and she communicates volumes about the woman with simple gestures or glances as well as with shrieks and tears. It's the strongest performance in a cast of strong performances.

Also powerful is Caroline Neff as Krista, the stripper who is currently homeless, thanks to falling behind on her rent at the Hummingbird. She started in the business around age 18, and has never been able to find a way out. She's sad, scared and tough, but vulnerable. When she learns that her ex, a bar employee called "Bait Boy" who moved to Atlanta a few years earlier to live with a rich older woman, is coming back for the party, she just about goes ballistic. K. Todd Freeman is the drag queen Sissy Na Na, sassy as RuPaul on a bad day, but a performance all the more impressive in the role's distance from the many great parts he's played at Steppenwolf. Scott Jaeck provides extra layers to the role of Wayne, the motel manager who feels he could have done more with his life had his dad not encouraged him to take up air conditioning repair—a profession he admits to be have been lousy at. Wayne is decent guy—trying to do his job and stay friends with the residents—unhappy at his failure, but trying to get by. Gordon Joseph Weiss is the handyman who tries to keep everything together, and is perhaps the least troubled of the bunch.

Judith Roberts has little stage time as Miss Ruby, but she commands the stage when she's on it. Addressing her "mourners" from a gurney, she speaks of the importance and value of sex as life force. She urges the partygoers to have pride and self-esteem in their roles of promoting a sex-positive culture. We have to wonder if these assembled parties would be so marginalized if our society weren't so puritanical. Would we need a "walk on the wild side?"

Into all this comes Bait Boy (Stephen Louis Grush), back from Atlanta with his girlfriend's 17-year-old daughter Zoe (Carolyn Braver) along for the ride so she can interview the Hummingbird residents for a school paper on subcultures. It's a device that allows the characters to reveal some of their backstory, as Zoe—through a more complex than it initially seems portrayal by Braver—seems to be getting seduced into this party world.

Among this superb cast (which also includes another 14 actors in smaller roles or as partygoers without lines), only Grush is a bit of a disappointment. His character, who returns for the funeral dressed in a neat button-down red checked shirt and freshly ironed designer jeans and carrying a tray of sandwiches from Whole Foods, has completely transformed into suburban preppy-dom. He now wants to be called by his given name, Greg, but over the next several hours his old, French Quarter wild man persona will return as he and Krista will resume their attraction and destructive relationship. D'Amour may be asking for more than she gave the actor in this script and Grush fails to make it work. He implausibly resorts from a perfect dialect-free speech to a N'awlins drawl over these few hours of the story—first unbuttoning and untucking his shirt before shucking it entirely to become Stanley Kowalski in a sleeveless undershirt. We need to see the charismatic dude who could charm women into spending more time and money than they had intended at Miss Ruby's bar.

The action all takes place over a 24-hour period and Japhy Weideman's lighting accurately suggests a humid New Orleans day at dawn, mid-day dusk and night. David Zinn's costumes seem just what these people might wear.

Those who see Airline Highway will never look at New Orleans locals the same way again. Even more importantly, though, it shows just how fragile life can be—what a difference a few wrong choices can make, particularly for those without a great support network like a family with some means. The informal family of the Hummingbird does what they can for each other—and like more stable families, some of that "support" is dysfunctional.

Chicago theater is known for this type of highly theatrical realism, but Mantello is taking that to Broadway scale, with Airline Highway's 22-person cast and Pask's massive set. I can't wait to see how Broadway takes to it.

Airline Highway will play Steppenwolf's downstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted, through February 8, 2015. For information or ticketing, visit or call 312-336-1650.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson

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