Recommended *** Chicago theater is moving further up the ladder towards world recognition. Producers know the value of the audiences in Chicago outweighs that of New York, and so more productions are getting their start here. Take for example, the World Premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre of “Airline Highway” a play that is Broadway-bound, written by Lisa D’Amour who brought us the acclaimed “Detroit”, back in 2010. This play is set in a parking lot of a flea-bag motel, The Hummingbird, a once upon a time glamorous motel in New Orleans. Now, fallen to bad times and low-income, the residents and employees are living one day at a time. The residents are hookers, strippers, hustlers and drifters. There is one resident, Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts in a smaller role, but one that proves the line from the “Fantastiks” , “there are no small parts, only small actors”, who has requested her friends to hold her funeral while she is alive, so she can hear what people have to say. Ms Roberts has one major scene and one that will stick in your mind as you leave the theater.
That is pretty much the “gist” of the play. The introduction to the main characters and how they came to be at The Hummingbird is what the meat of the play is, but when the party gets going in the second act, the energy exerted by the ensemble members is terrific and for those who recall the early days of Steppenwolf, you will recall how they brought an excitement to the stage and every production. They are back with this play.
The amazing set will get to you as soon as you enter the theater. You may think you are on Lincoln Avenue, just north of Foster or of you are a south sider, one of the seedy motels along Cicero Avenue on the way to Midway Airport, near the Stevenson or in Cicero itself.D’Amour, who is from New Orleans, had inside information that takes us deep into the gullet of the underbrush. A place where tourists never get to go. We know the Mardi Gras, the Jazz of the Bourbon Street, the beads and the liveliness, but the underbelly is kept as a secret for those who have been there and fear going back.
Director Joe Mantello uses this finely constructed set (Scott Pask has outdone himself) and his fantastic cast of players to tell this story with a high energy. There are many stories involving the lives of these characters, and yet, they often co-incide with each other. There is Tanya (amazingly played by the delicious Kate Buddeke) a hooker who has led a life that she regrets and yet is always there for the others of her “family” at The Hummingbird. Wayne (deftly handled by Chicago favorite Scott Jaeck) who is the motel manager, in a haze about how he got where he is. Caroline Neff plays the sexy, young stripper Krista, who was a resident, but is now homeless, and yet keeps coming back to her “family”.
Sissy Na Na, the resident transvestite is played by K. Todd Freeman, but tonight, Kenn E. Head took over the role and did so with amazing style and grace. Just recently, while attending the opening of “Cinderella” my grand-daughter, Sarah, brought up the subject of what happens should an actor/actress get sick or hurt and we spoke of the role of the understudy. During that performance, Cinderella took ill and in the first act, the understudy went on. Tonight, we were aware upfront that another actor would be onstage in place of the regular performer, and what was special for us is during the curtain calls, the cast made sure to express to Mr. Head their appreciation for a job well done. That is the beauty of “live theater”.
Other cast members who excelled in bringing special characters to the story are Tim Edward Rhoze as the handyman, grifter Terry, Gordon Joseph Weiss as Francis, the poet, Stephen Louis Grush as Bait Boy, who has returned for the “funeral” with his new girlfriend, Zoe (the adorable Carolyn Braver) to show his old “family” that he has escaped his old life. But has he? That is one of the questions that continues to haunt. Can any of these people reach new heights? Can they become something they are not? can they change, or are they just who they are forever?
Mantello has taken the words of D’Amour and with his own “amour” has painted a picture for us of the outcasts and misfits of the world and how they can make life more interesting than those who lead what we call normal lives. To make this happen, besides the brilliance of the script and story, and the rousing energetic cast, it takes the production staff to fill the whole thing out. And they do just that. While Pask’s set is amazing, we must also credit David Zinn (costumes), Japhy Weidman (lighting), Fitz Patton (sound and some dazzlingly haunting original music), Matt Hawkins (fight choreography) and the crew that assembled the props.
Tuesdays 7:30 p.m.
Wednesdays 7:30 p.m.
and starting January 21st at 2 p.m. as well
Thursdays 7:30 p.m.
Fridays 7:30 p.m.
Saturdays 3 and 7:30 p.m.
Sundays 3 p.m.
January 25th 1:30 TT
January 11th ASL 7:30 p.m.
Tickets range from $20-$86 and can be purchased at the box office, by calling 312-335-1650 or online at www.steppenwolf.org
Rush tickets are available at half price on day of show one hour before curtain and student $15 tickets are available online with a valid student ID ( limit of two).
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “Airline Highway”.