New Orleans underbelly exposed in ‘Airline Highway’

By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)

There is an overwhelming tendency in Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway for characters to talk over one another. This is apparently how our native daughter hears the conversations of the real life New Orleans figures upon whom she has based her fictional account. In her stage directions she clearly states “As much as possible there should be a sense of simultaneous and interlocking conversations.”

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Terry (Lance Nichols) leads the party with Sissy Na Na (Chivas Michael), Zoe (Madeline Kolker), Tanya (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) and Bait Boy (Todd D’Amour) at the rear. (Photo by John Barrois)

Just as the Romans acknowledged there is truth in wine (“en vino veritas”), there is truth in this tale set in the Crescent City. In the case of the unfortunate inhabitants of the deteriorating Hummingbird Hotel located on the outskirts of town, there is truth in beer, marijuana, pills, street drugs and sex too.

It is the conflated elements of party till you drop and let the good times roll with family that is at the heart of the two-act Tony-nominated play currently being jointly produced by Southern Rep and the Theatre and Film Department of the University of New Orleans. This is a loose collection of strippers, addicts, prostitutes and other ne’er-do-wells who have carved out a virtual family for themselves, when they have separated from their own families or have had their loved ones abandon them.

The impressive cast of 25 players directed by Southern Rep artistic director Aimée Hayes comes as close to capturing the indomitable spirit of New Orleans as any work by acclaimed masters like Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty or more recently by a disconsolate John Kennedy Toole. But in Airline Highway, there are several disparate forces within New Orleans fringe society that seem to come together in a conveniently romanticized, almost contrived fashion.

That sentiment notwithstanding, the plot is fairly straight forward, for this two-act play currently being seen at the Robert Nims Theater on the UNO campus. An eclectic group of down-on-their-luck denizens of a disheveled and rundown hotel are planning a living funeral for one of their most beloved members, Miss Ruby (Janet Shea), whose demise is eminent. The macabre reason is they want her to experience her own final sendoff while she is still alive. The event is planned throughout Act One and executed in Act Two.

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Miss Ruby (Janet Shea) at her funeral. (Photo by John Barrois)

One of the most genuine and noteworthy aspects of D’Amour’s language is an exposition of various accents and gritty language found in working class black and white New Orleans cultures. One of the most interesting is that of Sissy Na Na (Chivas Michael), a bearded transgender given to emotional outbursts and the wearing of tight-fitting gold lame and boas of every color and description. As flamboyant as she may be, she is sternly resolute in her loyalty to Miss Ruby, committed to seeing she is comforted by friends in her final hours. “All of us miserable rug rats gotta step up for Miss Ruby,” she insists.

She confides this to Tanya (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis), a former stripper turned prostitute who has lost most of her self-respect. Tanya is the biggest cheerleader for Miss Ruby’s sendoff. While she is the most dedicated organizer of the party activities, she also takes the biggest chances with her own life as the manager of the Hummingbird, Wayne (Carl Palmer), watches helplessly, hoping she will see how much he cares for her.

Handyman Terry (Lance Nichols) is despondent due to a lifetime of cut corners and missed opportunities. He makes the most of what he can, scheming to effect shoddy repairs to the crumbling facade of the motel. There is also a longing for an intimate connection with Krista (Elizabeth Daniels), a hapless stripper still hung up on Bait Boy (Todd D’Amour), a Cajun and former karaoke club worker who has come in from Atlanta to say goodbye.

The red hot scenes between Krista and Bait Boy are among the most scintillating, where the two are lustily drawn to each other like moths to flame. But their love is volatile and detrimental to each other’s sobriety, not that the characters in Airline Highway care much about that.

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Krista (Elizabeth Daniels) and Bait Boy (Todd D’Amour). (Photo by John Barrois)

Bait Boy is basically a kept man. His unseen new girlfriend from Atlanta has improvidently placed him in charge of her teenage daughter Zoe (Madeline Kolker). He tries unsuccessfully to prevent her indoctrination into the seamy world of a New Orleans never seen in travel brochures, as she captures it all on her tablet.

The main cast is finalized with Francis (Thomas Francis Murphy), a poet who waxes romantically about the New Orleans of old, and who seems incapable of moving away from a party once one gets in his way.

There is a lot to like in Airline Highway, especially the second act opener where the entire cast with 16 supporting actors is suddenly illuminated as they move and groove along to the traditional brass band ditty “Little Liza Jane.” There is a lot of music specifically indicated by D’Amour like James Booker’s “Junco Partner” and “Wobble,” an infectious New Orleans bounce line dance, to give the work a true dousing in New Orleans’ unique musical heritage.

When Miss Ruby makes her appearance in the final act, the beer guzzling, pot smoking and carrying on begins to get out of hand. Emotions are at a high as she is carried down from the second floor on a gurney, like a queen on a royal litter.

A remarkable aspect of D’Amour’s writing is that she has an effective brevity in writing about characters, who we seem to know already. A downstairs “problem room,” or party room where it is implied that drug use is rampant and sex acts are performed behind closed doors, has a number of characters entering and exiting. While we don’t have the benefit of large amounts of dialog between them and the other characters on stage, many of their actions indicate their malevolent intent. As a director, Hayes is responsible for ensuring that the characters are based in reality and not outlandish in their interpretation. She executes those duties well.

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Director Aimée Hayes with playwright Lisa D’Amour. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Zoe’s character is useful because as a naive and impressionable youngster, Bait Boy is trying to shield her – oftentimes unsuccessfully – from the immoral and illegal activities going on in plain sight around her. It is helpful as a device to explain some of the more unusual local customs or practices that only native-born or New Orleanians by choice would know.

There are many remarkable performances within the two acts as the partying and parting occurs within this tight-knit group of misfits. If the purpose of a playwright is not to regurgitate truth, but to find of reflection of truth within the dialog and directions, then director Hayes and playwright D’Amour succeed brilliantly.  Airline Highway has many characters who are downtrodden, but they possess within them a great spirit of joie de vivre. As they pay their respects to Miss Ruby, we see this is what carries them through their many trials and tribulations and helps define who they are.

“Airline Highway, a regional premiere, is a co-production with the UNO Department of Film & Theatre and Southern Rep is the season opener for the latter. It continues Fridays and Sundays at 8:00 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2:00 through October 30. For ticket information call 504-522-6545 or click here.

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