Steppenwolf, Chicago | Written by: Lisa D’Amour | Directed by: Joe Mantello
Synopsis per Steppenwolf’s site:
In the parking lot of The Hummingbird, a once-glamorous motel on New Orleans’ infamous Airline Highway, a group of friends gather. A rag-tag collection of strippers, hustlers and philosophers have come together to celebrate the life of Miss Ruby, an iconic burlesque performer who has requested a funeral before she dies. The party rages through the night as old friends resurface to pay their respects. A world premiere from the author of Detroit, Airline Highway is a boisterous and moving ode to the outcasts who make life a little more interesting.
Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Airline Highway will open on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in Spring 2015, following its world premiere engagement in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre.
Experience recap by Donna Touch:
Every time I catch a really good show like Airline Highway, it reminds me that I’ve got to be better about keeping up with the bigger theaters in Chicago. As performers that–are mostly featured in smaller scale productions–we often get caught up with the independent or less mainstream productions. This particular one, staged in New Orleans and whose main character was presumably an elderly burlesque icon, hit on too many of my interests to be ignored. Miraculously finding time, my friend The Galaxie producer Nicolle Wood (after doing hair for 12 gals for a private event) and I (after flyering all day for Motoblot at the International Motorcycle Show), battled traffic and endured the cold on Valentine’s Day, the last day of the Chicago production.
The set design is nothing short of fantastic. It really feels like you are just on the other side of the street looking at the outside of a 1940s, rundown motel, the Hummingbird. The whole story unfolds in the parking lot of that motel. That lot is the stage for almost 75 years of dreams and despair. I’ll say, when the play first started, I was a bit surprised by the grit. Remember, I thought I had signed up for a NOLA touting, boa swinging, sequin sparkling story about a glamourous burlesque performer. (As a side note, you must agree that the playwright, Lisa D’Amour, was born with a sweet burlesque name!) The characters that started the show (a stripper, hooker, vagabond poet, out of work handyman, failing hotel manager and mismatched transgender individual) seemed to be at the bottom of their respective barrels. While it took me a bit to find myself with them, all of the actors were so true to their rolls that it was easy to find myself in their world.
The story proceeds that Miss Ruby’s (a resident of the motel) health and memory has really started to slip. Because she never wanted a funeral, the other motel residents that love and care for her have decided to throw her a living funeral to instead celebrate her in her last days. An antagonist, Bait Boy, that used to be a resident–now married a wealthy woman in Atlanta–who has been invited back for this event, really stirs the pot. His 16 year old step daughter witnesses the events unfold while as she interviews and records the other characters for a high school report.
While Bait Boy’s story seems to be the needle that threads through everything that transpires, every character has a complex history. They are all united by the motel and their unique relationship with Miss Ruby. While the lives of all the characters seem shattered in different ways, you get the sense they’d be even worse of if it wasn’t for Miss Ruby.
The party is paused when one of the guests asks what Miss Ruby might be thinking as she seems shut in by all the excitement. A powerful switch to the world inside her mind gives her the opportunity to share. Through a poetic monologue she talks about sex, birth, discovery and survival. A life well-lived is not quite as important as enjoying each precious moment and the wisdom you get from experience. While her story is peppered with a few regrets, she is an example of someone who has been very deliberate in her existence and has not taken it for granted. It’s almost as if she is whole for how she has lived her life, but the other characters need each other to be.
I’m extremely glad we were able to make it out to this show and recommend seeing it if you can catch it in New York. If you ever see a show at the Steppenwolf, I also recommend that you plan to stick around after the show. They have a moderator come out to allow people to discuss the play and it really helps you take a moment to digest what you’ve just seen.