Maybe it’s just Tennessee Williams’ legacy looming large, or maybe there is just something about New Orleans that makes it feel like the only logical setting for a certain wistful, romantic kind of tragedy. The contemporary, post-Katrina New Orleans in Lisa D’Amour’s play, Airline Highway, is sure to add to further fuel to this idea with its distinct mix of magic and melancholy.
Set at a trash-strewn and crumbling dump called the Hummingbird Motel, her characters – residents, mostly, who pay by the week – have life stories mirroring the once glamorous place they call home, which are marked by dashed dreams, self-delusion and self-destruction. They’re an entire cast of Blanche Dubois types, but more genuinely likeable, and with fewer pretensions: Among the nine principal characters, there’s Krista (Caroline Neff), a stripper who’s recently lost her room at the motel, Tanya (Julie White), a prostitute battling drug addiction, and Francis (Ken Marks), a spaced out, homeless poet who has a penchant for waxing, well, poetic. There’s also a failed handyman, Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze) a bumbling manager, Wayne (Scott Jaeck), and a flamboyant wisecracking character named Sissy Na-Na (K. Todd Freeman).
Like many in less than desirable circumstances, the residents of the Hummingbird all seem to genuinely love and care about one another, a point made most clear by their reason for gathering on this particular day: A “living funeral” for Miss Ruby, a dying performer who has asked for one last celebration with her neighbors before she goes. Watching this unfold feels like something of a living funeral for the entire community, whose existence is threatened by the construction, across the street, of a Costco, and the creeping emergence of a new, characterless side of the city.
Still, the party gives D’Amour the opportunity to transcend these gloomy notions and show us a warm, rich community that’s full of life despite the odds. Indeed, like the revelatory frequenters of Bourbon Street who many of them serve, the residents of the Hummingbird emphatically know how to party. Watching them do so, amongst a radiant display of streamers, sequins and colorful costumes, provides some of the most genuinely pleasurable moments in the show.
But these moments are like brief, brilliant fireworks in an otherwise pitch-black night. Soon, the residents show they fight with as much energy as they celebrate. The main source of tension resides in Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), who arrives from Atlanta with his girlfriend’s 16-year-old daughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver). Bait Boy – who insists he now goes by Greg – hasn’t been back to the tight-knit community since he moved and traded the life of a party boy for that of a home-dwelling, grass-mowing stiff. But Bait Boy, like his former neighbours, can’t put his past behind him as easily as he’d like. Over the course of an evening, a combination of factors – the booze, Zoe’s painfully naïve inquires into her father figure’s old stomping grounds and the still bruised feelings of his former lover, Krista – brings it roaring back.
As an evocation of time and place, Airline Highway is entirely successful. The Hummingbird Motel feels and looks – in part thanks to an expert set by Scott Pask and gauzy lighting by Japhy Weideman – like a real place, and one becomes attached to it and the people who live there with surprising speed.
But the show’s best quality – its terrific ensemble cast – is ultimately its greatest flaw. There are so many characters and situations demanding equal attention that they drown one another out. Bait Boy’s collapse, for instance, is too fast and too expected, and the community’s pent-up feelings of betrayal aren’t given enough time to fully blossom. Other plot lines, like Zoe’s strange research project into the community and Tanya’s communication with a long-lost child, command equal, yet insufficient, air time. In the end, one ends up wondering whose play we are watching; the answer, it seems, is everyone’s, and in a way, no one’s.
The feeling that emerges from this clamor is something akin to the one you feel after a wild party: leaving the theater, you feel you’ve met some interesting people and had a good time, even if the details are slightly hazy.