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Welcome to Airline Highway

by Martha Lavey

It’s extremely exciting for us to present the world premiere of Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway to our Steppenwolf audiences under the direction of Joe Mantello. Many of you will recognize Lisa as the playwright of Detroit which premiered at Steppenwolf in our 2010–11 season with ensemble members Kevin Anderson, Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Bob Breuler, Laurie Metcalf and Austin Pendleton, directing. Austin went on to direct a production of the play at the National Theatre in London and the play has had a robust life at theaters across the country. We commissioned Lisa to write again for Steppenwolf and Airline Highway is the fruit of that ongoing collaboration. Joe Mantello is familiar to many of you from his most recent work, directing The Last Ship, a musical by Sting that premiered in Chicago and is now playing on Broadway. Many of our ensemble members have worked with Joe throughout the years starting with his college classmate, K. Todd Freeman and extending to Rondi Reed in Wicked, and with Laurie Metcalf repeatedly on the New York stage. Joe feels like a member of the extended Steppenwolf family–a connection of repeated artistic collaboration that brings unique richness to our work on the Steppenwolf stage. It’s fitting that our team for Airline Highway is one that is rich in relationship history. The play is deeply concerned with interrogating the nature of community and belonging. Lisa has rooted the play in her hometown of New Orleans, an American city that lives in the cultural imagination as the home of Mardi Gras. The annual carnival of Mardi Gras participates in a long tradition of social ritual, active in many cultures, of isolating a season during which the conventional order is upended and the forces of an underworld are unleashed. Social theorists debate the cultural function of carnival: is it a safety valve–a way to release the tensions of conformity–ultimately restoring the social order; or is it a subversive rite—a transformative performance of a new world order? In either case, carnival, and in the case of New Orleans, Mardi Gras, is a liminal cultural moment: a time of slippage, of identity play, of unlicensed behavior and release. Lisa sets the play at the Hummingbird Motel on Airline Highway, the passage from the airport to the heart of New Orleans. Everything about the setting suggests transience, of passage, of the betwixt and between condition that so characterizes the rite of Mardi Gras. And indeed, the denizens of the Hummingbird Motel are, for the most part, workers in clubs and bars that have capitalized on the tourist demand for Mardi Gras and extended its commercial reach well into Jazz Fest. As Francis, the poet of the group declares, “The real fest is on the edges…/The center will not motherfucking hold./They should frikken pay me, man, pay US,/For making this city interesting./Tourists don’t want a Coyote Ugly–chain–training wheel–strip joint,/…They want some dirty shit to happen,/authentic top shelf shit,/…Try buying that with your friggin Discover card./They should pay me…I’m telling you…” The occasion of the play is the final party for Miss Ruby, the owner and performer of a former notorious strip club, who lives at the Hummingbird. Miss Ruby, now in her eighties, has declared that she wants her funeral before she dies–she wants a party in celebration of her life and community. There is a long tradition in New Orleans of the unconventional funeral–be it the “jazz funeral” with music and dancing, or the recent reports of funeral celebrations with the deceased posed in a party atmosphere. Miss Ruby, who has served as a kind of mother and spiritual guide to the community of the Hummingbird, makes an appearance at her “funeral” to deliver the wisdom for which they cherish her. It’s in Miss Ruby’s oration that so much of the compassionate heart of the play lives. As Sissy Na Na, the transvestite (betwixt and between) who appears to be the mother-designate in the wake of Miss Ruby’s passing, announces Miss Ruby, “We are gathered here today to honor the angel who looks upon you all with an utterly non judgmental eye….” I will allow you to receive Miss Ruby’s beautiful words in the course of your experience of the play but I want to point to the utterly natural way in which Miss Ruby experiences and relates our sexuality to the divine: “I believe that the sexual act was first imagined as energy, as energy creating energy. If there IS a God, and if God imagined sex, he imagined it from the inside, as a feeling God would like to have, a feeling God would like to have with another God.” The philosophy and wisdom that Miss Ruby imparts includes a vision of each member of the Hummingbird community as a “little yellow baby duck”–ungendered, swimming in innocence. Miss Ruby sees their pure selves and loves them unconditionally. Terry responds, “The thing about you, Miss Ruby, you never asked me to change. You just knew. You knew there was something decent under all this muck. And you helped me remember that too.” The weave of the sacred and profane is deep throughout the play. Lisa is keenly interested in this flux in human nature and she sets the play in the city where this interplay is so alive and celebrated. In a brilliant touch, she brings in Bait Boy, a former resident of the Hummingbird who has escaped to a respectable life in Atlanta with a slightly older woman and her daughter, Zoe. (“Zoe” the Greek word for life). Bait Boy, who now wants to be known as “Greg,” returns for Miss Ruby’s funeral, the high school student, Zoe, in tow. Zoe is doing a school project on “subcultures” and is interested in the community of the Hummingbird as one such subculture. Bait Boy is another liminal character, betwixt and between the straight life he’s adopted in Atlanta and the one he has attempted to escape at the Hummingbird, and is both critical of his old friends and inescapably drawn into the relationships he has there. He thought he was immune to the lure of his life there and brings Zoe as what? protection? as proof of his new life? Zoe is surprising: she seems naive and, at first, laughable in her earnest school project. But as we watch her ingenuous interviewing, she become our agent: she is there as an observer, a chronicler of the Hummingbird “subculture” (a term that Sissy Na Na has great sport with) and we watch her growing wonder with a way of life so foreign to the suburban Atlanta she knows and feels confined by. Perhaps we share her entrance into what she later calls the “rabbit hole”: “If you pause, and look one of them in the eye, they will take you by the hand and lead you down the rabbit hole.” Lisa is asking the same of us, as the audience. She constructs the play as a series of overlapping dialogues, with one scene sliding into the next. It’s a trickster structure—a seeming disorder out of which we are given insight into every one of the characters of the Hummingbird. At some moment in the play, we learn what brought each of them into this community. The playwright has deliberately created a texture that is carnivalesque, one that intentionally disrupts playwriting hierarchies of plot and character exposition to call upon our discernment. She is asking, in the form of the play itself, can we see through the tumult into the integrity of these people? The structure of the play suggests that it is only in community and its polyphony that we can truly hear any individual’s story. Finally, it’s pretty fantastic that we are receiving all of this as a play. What are plays but an opportunity to feel more deeply that we are part of a community? Private lives are opened up and we witness and gain sustenance from knowing we are not entirely alone in our joys and sorrows and brokenness and radiance. In Francis’ final poem, he invokes the “confluence of saints and devils” which, I think Lisa might suggest, is all of us.