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From Broadway to New Orleans, 'Airline Highway' has made it home

Editor's Note: When NolaVie editor Renee Peck saw Airline Highway in New York, all she could think about was New Orleans, and now - through a partnership between Southern Rep and University of New Orleans - Airline Highway is here in NOLA. That is what we call theater magic. This co-production between Southern Rep and UNO brings an all-new production to the University of New Orleans Nims Theater from October 5 through October 30.

You can purchase tickets here.  

With her preview and review (and without further ado); here is Renee Peck's take on Airline Highway. 

A weekend getaway to New York City included a stop at Airline Highway: The gritty NOLA thoroughfare of cheap hotel fame has taken up temporary residence on Broadway.

Its Big Apple credentials are more compelling than its Big Easy ones. There, Airline Highway is a play written by Lisa D’Amour, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her equally site-specific Detroit, and two-time Tony winner as director of Casa Valentina and Take Me Out. She splits her time between Brooklyn and New Orleans, but considers the latter home, according to a recent interview with The Chicago Tribune. Her father worked at Tulane University for 22 years and is now with Xavier; she returned post-Katrina to help her brother Todd (making his Broadway debut in this play) rebuild his house.

I confess that, having winced through dozens of big-screen productions that profess to “get” New Orleans – mangled accents, misplaced landmarks – I wondered how authentic the Broadway Airline Highway would be. You generally have to reach back to Tennessee Williams to get a proper sense of this multi-layered and enigmatic city onstage. As with the overriding tourist view of the city, New Orleans in dramatic portrayal tends to veer toward the stereotypical. Saxophones and sex, trolley cars and steamboats.

But Tennessee, it seems, has some competition. D’Amour’s Airline Highway has been lifted lock, stock and Rouses grocery bag from Jefferson Parish to Manhattan. It’s almost too authentic. Can non-New Orleanians ever really understand the complicated elegance and pathos of characters and places like these, lifted with spot-on sharpness from the city’s underbelly?

The theater bar gets a New Orleans touch, too (Photo: Renee Peck)

The theater bar gets a New Orleans touch, too (Photo: Renee Peck)

Airline Highway is set in the shabby roadside Hummingbird Motel, home to an assortment of New Orleans characters (literally). They are the people who serve to live – drivers, delivery guys, hustlers, strippers, drug dealers. The kind of people who can’t afford a ticket to Jazz Fest, although Terry, handyman and stoop-sitting philosopher, divulges that he once saw the Jazz Fest set-up during a Porta-Potty delivery to the Fair Grounds.

The narrative turns around a funeral being planned for Miss Ruby, a resident burlesque queen who has not yet reached the Pearly Gates, but is on her way. A living funeral, which anywhere but here might be considered an implausible theatrical device.

But the storyline serves mostly to put flesh on the bones of the characters themselves. And these are people we know. Miss Ruby, the aging burlesque dancer who still pays attention to makeup and coifs; Tanya, the prostitute/mother hen who’s organizing the party; Bait Boy, who keeps trying to climb the ladder, but can’t quite make the next rung; Wayne, the motel manager, who has lived and loved hard. Zoe, serving as a kind of contemporary Greek chorus, is a teen who turns up to write a school report on this happenstance community.

“We are definitely ‘sub’ culture here,” Wayne tells her.

Miss Ruby’s character borrows from Chris Owens, while the cross-gendered Sissy Na Na is based on Big Freedia, D’Amour says. K. Todd Freeman, who just received a best-actor Tony nomination for his portrayal (the play got four nods, including a best-actress nomination for Julie White), went to the Internet to research the role. “The biggest inspiration from Big Freedia is how he presented himself: He’s girl from the neck up and boy from the neck down,” Freeman told Broadway Box.

This place will be familiar to New Orleanians, too.

Set designer Scott Pask says that he based the Hummingbird on the London Lodge in New Orleans. But a recent drive down the real Airline Highway (actually, it's now officially Airline Drive) delivered more than one double take, in the characteristic two-story, peeling wood and iron-railed prototype. That accuracy on set comes from elaborate attention to even minute details. Zapp’s potato chips, a pink tutu, feather boas hung over the stairwell. There's little doubt that those long-necked bottles in the ice chest are Dixie beers.

"We combed Craigslist trying to find the most anonymous drinks machine," Pask told Theater Mania about one prominent prop onstage. The article noted: “Perhaps the smallest detail, which would be completely invisible to those even in the front row, is the Post-it note that tells consumers beer is available if you hit the Mountain Dew button.”

Like Brothers from the Bottom, another New Orleans-set play that opened this spring in New York (and reprising at NOCCA in June), Airline Highway touches on the issue of gentrification. As D’Amour explained to Playbill: "I actually think I'm writing about a very particular moment in time in New Orleans that has to do with gentrification, with New Orleans sort of opening its doors to a lot of outsiders, which hasn't happened a lot in the past. I feel it's about New Orleans now and how the locals who have been here for a long time are digging in and saying, 'This is how New Orleans is, and we are going to go caretake this culture. People can come in and move here, but you're not going to change the way that we celebrate. You're not going to change our rituals.' "

“We are who we are,” says Miss Ruby toward the end of the play. “I am in the last 10 hours of my life and you are the most beautiful group of fuck-ups I have ever seen ...”

That tangled sense of individuality and community is what perhaps will resonate most with New Orleanians who see the play. Here, we bond, we gather, we share moments. And that brings us together as family.

Airline Highway gets that.

Airline Highway will be on stage at the Nims Theater from October 5 through October 30. You can purchase your tickets here.  

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]