Chicago Theatre Review
And the Party Rages On
Airline Highway – Steppenwolf Theatre
The formerly glamorous Hummingbird is now a rundown motel located on New Orleans’ Airline Highway, a divided straightaway that connects the Big Easy with Baton Rouge. Its name is derived from the two airports located along its route, and it’s noted for a notorious history of seedy motels found along its way. Now occupied by several long-term residents, with an occasional tourist crashing for a night or two, the motel’s become home for a community of strippers, prostitutes, street poet/philosophers, hustlers and other folks upon whom society has turned its back. Lisa D’Amour’s play focuses on one special day during which this extended family plans, celebrates and recovers from a living funeral party for one of its longtime residents. Miss Ruby, a former New Orleans burlesque queen, has lived her long life at the Hummingbird. By default, she’s became a revered, surrogate mother confessor and spiritual advisor for this rag-tag community; now it’s the residents‘ turn to give back. They want Miss Ruby to know how much they value and love her before she leaves this world.
When audiences walk into the theatre their jaws will drop at what they see. It’s almost as if a wall has been removed and patrons are looking at an actual motel on North Avenue. Tony-nominated scenic designer Scott Pask, a new member of Steppenwolf’s artistic team, is known in Chicago for such enormous theatrical projects as Bank of America Theatre’s “Book of Mormon” and the Lyric Opera’s “Barber of Seville.” Mr. Pask’s set for this production is a Jeff Award-worthy, realistic, two-story motel, featuring several rooms, an office, neon signage and a parking lot, with a car up on blocks. His technical support staff must be commended, along with those responsible for the myriad of props that adorn this environment. Such authenticity on stage is breathtakingly magnificent and immediately transports audiences to this New Orleans locale.
Brilliant Broadway actor/director Joe Mantello (“The Last Ship,” “The Normal Heart”), a Tony and Emmy winner for his artistry both on and off the stage, brings Ms. D’Amour’s latest play to life. And life is precisely what this play is all about. The director has gently guided his astounding, large cast toward finding the reality behind each character and making them feel real. Each resident of the Hummingbird has his own backstory. While every character doesn’t necessarily tell us everything about his past, audiences will understand these people, particularly from their many unspoken moments. Watching each character reacting to the events around him hints at a multitude of additional stories. Indeed, from the sensitivity Mr. Mantello has elicited from his actors, each performer clearly loves the character he’s playing. With this moving, inspirational play, Mr. Mantello has created another hit.
There is no main character in this play. Like Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” and “The Hot L Baltimore,” this comic drama teems with characters and their stories, often involving one another. The awesome Kate Buddeke is beautiful and heartrending as Tanya, the aging prostitute who will probably replace Miss Ruby as matriarch of the Hummingbird. Still plying her trade in the oldest profession, while secretly mourning the child she long ago gave up for adoption, Tanya is a faded southern belle (much like many of Tennessee Williams‘ tragic heroines) and the spearhead behind Miss Ruby’s funeral celebration. Like her Hummingbird family, Tanya’s trying desperately to survive in this changing world, while working hard at conquering her addiction to pills. Her partner in party planning is Sissy Na Na, a kind, always available transexual African-American whose middle name is Attitude. He’s played to perfection by the multitalented theatre artist, K. Todd Freeman. Providing most of the production’s humor, Mr. Freeman also brings great pathos to his character who, on the surface, seems to be all glib comments and put-downs, but actually hides a past filled with hurt and abuse.
Exquisite young Caroline Neff, so wonderful in Route 66 Theatre’s recent production of “Downpour,” brings many layers of emotion to her complex portrayal of Krista. An on-again, off-again Hummingbird resident, the exotic dancer is currently homeless. Evicted by motel manager Wayne (played with big-hearted friendliness and pompous demeanor by the excellent Scott Jaeck) for weeks of unpaid rent, Krista resides in the Hummingbird’s neglected parking lot, living out of her backpack. She survives on the motel’s free coffee, bummed cigarettes and junk food and showers in the rooms of her friends. The struggling young woman’s pain, seasoned by years of constant regret, is enlivened by the return of old boyfriend, Bait Boy, a former motel resident who worked as a hustler and club deejay. Played with surly affability by Stephen Louis Grush, this studly, self-assured young man opens up a number of old wounds for Krista. Bait Boy now goes by his given name, Greg, and is married to an older woman in Atlanta. Greg brings his “step daughter” Zoe with him to New Orleans so she can observe his beginnings. Zoe, played by excellent actress Carolyn Braver, is spot-on as a privileged 16-year-old who wants to interview the motel’s residents for her sociology project on metropolitan subcultures. In her portrayal, Ms. Braver captures all the teenage innocence and inquisitiveness so often found in today’s youth. In her candid sincerity comes a wisdom that makes Zoe one of the play’s the wisest characters.
Two of the more insightful inhabitants of the Hummingbird are Judith Roberts, as Miss Ruby, and Gordon Joseph Weiss as the aging hippy poet, Francis. These two actors, both newcomers to Steppenwolf, bring sagacity and sympathy to their mature characters. Ms. Roberts offers a smart, lengthy monologue near the end of the play detailing Miss Ruby’s rules for good living, while Mr. Weiss continually spouts poetry in response to everything the world keeps dishing out. His connection with Zoe near the finale is one of the play’s best moments. Tim Edward Rhoze is comfortably consistent and pragmatic as motel handyman, Terry. Whether he’s out to make a quick buck by pointing out repair work that needs attention, or just simply incompetent in his work, Terry is the residents’ friend and, as such, spends most every moment at the Hummingbird. His presence is reassuring and familial to the others.
People live their lives to the fullest by learning from those around them. In Lisa D’Amour’s play, staged with genius and sensitivity by Broadway’s Joe Mantello and performed by an ensemble of extraordinary actors, the education culled from these characters’ years of survival shines forth. People everywhere will always be the same, but when offered the chance to improve their lives they become reborn. In this celebration of a life well-lived, a cast of fascinating characters show the audience the importance of enjoying each morsel of life’s banquet, and how to glean every precious moment of wisdom from that experience.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 14-February 8 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company on their Downstairs Stage, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available through Audience Services at the theatre box office, by calling them at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.