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Playwright Lisa D’Amour returns to New Orleans for ‘Airline Highway’

BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

The plays, novels and short stories of Southern literature have long been filled with a rich array of eccentric characters trying to find their way in life. It’s always the quirky inhabitants of these fictional worlds created by writers such as Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty or Peter Taylor that stay with you.

Playwright Lisa D’Amour adds to this tradition with her new play, “Airline Highway,” which features a large ensemble of memorable characters who could only come out of one Southern city: New Orleans. Born and raised in the city, D’Amour has a true connection to the South but until now has never attempted to set a play in her hometown.

“I’ve been writing for 20 years and this was always a terrifying prospect for me,” “D’Amour says. “Even being of that city, I think it’s still so tricky to try and capture its particular texture and idiosyncrasies.”

‘AIRLINE HIGHWAY’

When: Opens Dec. 14; runs to Feb. 8

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $20-$86

Info: (312) 335-1650; steppenwolf.org

“Airline Highway” is D’Amour’s second play to premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre (the first was 2010’s “Detroit”). After the Chicago run, it moves to New York for its Broadway debut at Manhattan Theatre Club with most of the Steppenwolf cast intact. Joe Mantello (“The Last Ship,” “Wicked”) directs both productions.

“I think Lisa has woven this incredible tapestry of distinctive individual voices,” Mantello says. “It’s almost like a musical score in some ways.”

The ensemble cast features K. Todd Freeman, Caroline Neff, Stephen Louis Grush, Kate Buddeke, Time Edward Rhoze, Judith Roberts, Scott Jaeck, Carolyn Braver, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Robert Breuler, Terry Hamilton, Toni Martin and Brenann Stacker.

D’Amour’s play takes its name from the road that was once the main artery from the airport into New Orleans. Once dotted with Art Deco motels, it was a stop for tourists in the 1920s through the 1940s. When the interstate was built and the strip was bypassed, these establishments fell on hard times and eventually acquired a reputation as no-tell motels.

D’Amour was curious about what a community of people, who had nowhere else to go and ended up living at one of these motels, would look like. “That’s when I began dreaming about the piece and came up with the idea of Miss Ruby (Roberts) who is inspired by [legendary New Orleans burlesque performer] Chris Owens,” D’Amour says.

“Airline Highway” takes place in the parking lot of the Hummingbird motel, where a ragtag group of friends — strippers, hustlers and philosophers — gather to celebrate the life of Miss Ruby, their surrogate mother, who has requested a living funeral. They all are also facing their own uncertain futures — rumor has it the motel is about to close.

“These people love New Orleans; there is no other place they could live,” D’Amour notes. “They are all trying to overcome the roadblocks in their lives. And Miss Ruby is someone who helped them be their best selves.”

Steppenwolf ensemble member Freeman plays Sissy Na Na, a trans bartender who just may be the sanest one of the bunch. He says D’Amour “weaves beautiful music out of chaos.” The play, which has a lot of overlapping dialogue and a large ensemble cast, went through a long workshop process to get to the point where it is now.

D’Amour admits at first she wasn’t sure how the play’s structure would evolve. As it turned out, simply letting the characters talk to her was the key.

“I let them all get a word in, and it took shape,” D’Amour recalls. “I feel like I’ve tried to capture the improvisatory nature of the city, the way people rejoice in the tiny details of their life. The way they value things like sitting down and telling stories. And also this fierce, active love of ritual.”

Another inspiration was Lanford Wilson’s “The Hot L Baltimore,” a large-cast play of similar structure set in a hotel about to close.

“Airline Highway” is a “complete homage to that play,” D’Amour says, with a laugh. “It was really fun to write something on that scale, lots of characters, big set. I find it really amazing that Steppenwolf went for it and that it’s heading to Broadway.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.