Friday, December 19, 2014

En Route to Broadway, Excellent 'Airline Highway' Reaches the Essence of Us All -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Airline Highway
a world premiere play by Lisa D'Amour
directed by Joe Mantello
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 8, 2015

Airline Highway is easily one of the best new plays I've seen in 2014, a year in which I've seen several excellent ones. (Look for my Best Plays of 2014 post here in the days ahead.)

But I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it's about, with any specificity in terms of storyline or meaning.

Best covering both may well be a line spoken by a character named Miss Ruby (well-played by Judith Roberts), who despite having rather limited stage time offers some of the show's most poignant sentiments, including this one:

"You are the most gorgeous group of fuck-ups I've ever seen."

She is speaking to the (mostly long-term) residents of the Hummingbird Motel, a now dilapidated establishment along Airline Highway, the road from the airport to the heart of New Orleans.

Photo Credit: All photos by Michael Brosilow and from
Without giving away much, these characters--in the best sense of the word--include a prostitute (played by Kate Buddeke), stripper (Caroline Neff), transvestite (K. Todd Freeman), indigent poet (Gordon Joseph Weiss), hardscrabble handyman (Tim Edward Rhoze), longtime motel manager (Scott Jaeck) and a former nightclub promoter nicknamed Bait Boy (Stephen Louis Grush).

Although Airline Highway is a quite formidable work in its own right, commissioned by Steppenwolf Theatre from Lisa D'Amour, whose play Detroit premiered at the venue in 2010 and went on to be a Pulitzer Prize finalist, echoes of Lanford Wilson's Hot L Baltimore--which I saw at Steppenwolf in 2011--are not coincidental.

In this interview with Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones, D'Amour speaks of wanting to write an ensemble piece for Steppenwolf and pen "a tribute" to the Wilson play, which similarly concerns itself with a community of down-but-not-out tenants of lodging in disrepair.

Given the New Orleans setting, ensemble cast and celebration of societal outcasts, it's also not hard to think of various Tennessee Williams plays while watching Airline Highway.

And I also can't help but recall hearing Rebecca Gilman--in discussing Luna Gale, her terrific play that premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre early in 2014--speak of her frequent desire to "give voice to the voiceless."

For as much as any specifics I might give you (or avoid giving you), that to me is what Airline Highway is about.

Like a Toulouse-Lautrec painting humanizing the prostitutes, Can-Can dancers and other denizens of Montmartre, D'Amour's play not only chronicles a festive day in the life of a group of N'awlins tourist trade workers, but suggests that their sense of pride, dignity, camaraderie, community and even insecurity & self-doubt makes them no different or lesser than anyone of any station in life.

The entirely entertaining play reiterated my belief that there is a special story--or many--in everyone, and it was fun to ride the Red Line home afterward with that thought in mind.

Under the direction of A-List Broadway director Joe Mantello--he's directed Wicked, The Last Ship, several plays and has won a pair of Tony Awards--the cast is superb, despite only featuring two Steppenwolf Ensemble members.

One of those, K. Todd Freeman--who the program notes was college classmates with Mantello--is an absolute hoot as Sissy Na Na, a transvestite with a proverbial heart of gold.

Kate Buddeke is terrific as Tanya, an aging prostitute, as are all the others named above, particularly Neff and Grush. It was also a pleasure seeing the fine acting work done by Tim Rhoze, whose directing and writing--and he himself--I came to know a bit via three productions I saw this summer by Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theater, for which Rhoze is the Artistic Director.

With no disrespect to anyone in the fine Steppenwolf cast, I wouldn't be surprised if some bigger names take over a few roles when Airline Highway arrives at New York's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in April.

Though everyone was perfectly delightful in imbuing the ragtag gathering at the Hummingbird Motel--an early Act II onstage singalong of a song seemingly called "Love Me Good" is absolutely blissful--and I would be happy for several of them to hit Broadway, I can imagine some star faces adding a bit more personality, not to mention box office, to this ensemble piece.

As it was, in taking advantage of Steppenwolf's exceptionally generous "Twenty for $20" day-of-show discount offer, I was able to see a bound-for-Broadway, likely-to-become-Tony-nominated, regularly priced at $60+ play for just a mere pittance, along with my friend Bob, who seemed to like it even a bit more than me.

Based on sparser-than-it-should-have-been attendance in the balcony on Thursday night, you should well be able to take advantage of the "call 312-335-1650 right at 11am" discount offer as well.

But even for those who have no problem paying full price, as long as one can appreciate the "we all matter, equally" abiding theme, this fine new play is well-worth everyone's time, money and consideration.

And though it has substantial depth despite ambiguous acuity, Airline Highway is also a whole lotta fun, with vibrant colors, an outstanding set design by Scott Pask and a buoyant cast of characters who deserve far better than to be callously passed by on the way to town. Stop by and see 'em.

For they're likely to wind up seeming--perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not--a whole lot like you and me.

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