Airline Highway at Steppenwolf (and Beyond): Why New Orleans?

Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Broadway-bound production of Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway begins before it begins: As we take our seats in the Downstairs Theatre, a quiet dawn inches over the Humming Bird Motel. It’s a remarkable piece of photorealistic theatre, courtesy of scenic designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Japhy Weideman; every cracked brick and rusted gutter has been attended to with care, as shadows lengthen across the stage, carrying us from night into morning. Even the actors’ herbal cigarettes put a tang in the air, reminiscent of old weed, that is not unwelcome. But this is a world that’s not built to last, and before too long the Humming Bird as she sits now will be gone. For those of watching, we can read the program and take comfort in knowing that the motel will have at least one more home (Manhattan Theatre Club, starting this Spring) before it hits the landfill, and that even when it is stripped bare from the Steppenwolf stage, there will be something just as painstakingly realized, just as loved, in its place for the next show. For those living on the stage, however, the future looks like the old warehouses across the street getting bulldozed to make room for a big-box warehouse store. Costco is coming, and there’s nothing that our gang of deep-hearted dreamers, drunks, and losers can do about it.

This sense of battered defiance, of laughing (and drinking and dancing) at death, runs deep through the script, and provides the strongest rationale for its New Orleans setting. D’Amour is a local, and mostly succeeds in threading the characters with enough local color to make the setting matter without veering into Big Easy cliches; nobody sits down to a big bowl of gumbo, and nary a “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” is heard. The play takes place as the city gears up for this year’s Jazz Fest, but none of these locals can afford to go; instead, they make their living off obnoxious Northern tourists who are happy to throw around money (and beads) for a look/taste/grope of “N’awlins.” (Meanwhile, the family sitting next to us spent the entire intermission gabbing, without a hint of self-awareness, about how excited they were to go to Jazz Fest this year, and whether it would be better just to buy the apartment their daughter was currently renting.)

So why New Orleans, of all places? This was the question posed to the audience by assistant director Josh Altman during the post-show discussion. Why not Detroit, another American city left wounded and abandoned, and the nominal setting of D’Amour’s previous show? Why not Hollywood or Las Vegas, audience members suggested, other neon party towns where the gulf is wide between those who serve and those who get served? Why not Portland or Austin, where locals are proud to be loudly, defiantly themselves? Or why not Chicago or New York City, where gentrification brings economic improvement to neighborhoods while marginalizing the elements and people who made those neighborhoods distinctive in the first place?

Perhaps it’s because, while other cities can be strong vessels for one or more of those issues, New Orleans can hold them all. New Orleans is self-explanatory. If there is ever a time when New Orleans art can leave Katrina behind, we have not reached it yet; the play only makes one or two passing references to the storm, but every character bears its weight, and in the audience we can hear the ragged breathing that comes from having almost drowned. In 2005 it was easy to watch the news and believe that Katrina had brought ruin to the city, when in reality what we saw was the storm washing away the glitter and beads and for a moment revealing the broken, disenfranchised heart that had always been there. Decades of institutional short shrift left a major American city stranded on its own rooftops. New Orleans: too bawdy, too drunk, too poor, too black–hell, too Catholic. For a long while it must have seemed that the only thing that cared about New Orleans was New Orleans. The Humming Bird survived then, apparently, but it won’t for much longer. As the play begins, its denizens have barricaded the parking lot in order to get ready for a party, but the bougie barbarians are at the gate. The party is for Miss Ruby, a burlesque extraordinaire on her deathbed who wishes to be around for her own funeral. No other city has the alchemy for such an idea to make sense, much less get carried out: Just take a moment to consider the forces of history, of sex and brazen theatricality, of stolen and reclaimed spiritual practices, all of which more often than not running counter to the currents of the rest of the nation, needed to create a city where an old fan dancer could request to participate in the gleeful celebration of her death–and where that scenario would not be patently ridiculous or poisonously whimsical? That’s why New Orleans. And if it’s maybe a little too obvious to have one old woman’s death represent the dying of a city and of a whole way of life, well…sometimes subtlety is overrated.

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