With its world premiere of “Airline Highway,” Lisa D’Amour’s Broadway-bound play with a post-Katrina, Big Easy backdrop, Steppenwolf Theatre appears to be channeling its early golden days of ensemble glory — that period in the 1980s when it let its “freak flag” fly to such memorable effect in Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” (and later, “The Hot L Baltimore”).
As for D’Amour (whose play “Detroit,” a tale of America’s post-2008 social and financial meltdown, debuted at Steppenwolf in 2010), her “Airline Highway” seems to be channeling the residual perfume of Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans, while at the same time suggesting a contemporary, female-inflected version of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” the drama in which a group of lost souls in a Bowery flophouse survive on pipe dreams, the last best hope of the eternally marooned.
When: Through Feb. 8.
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Info: (312) 335-1650; steppenwolf.org
Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission
Of course conjuring the names of O’Neill, Williams and even Wilson raises great expectations. Without question, the large, galvanic cast at Steppenwolf — under the direction of Joe Mantello (most recently the director of Sting’s musical, “The Last Ship”) — could not be better, playing together effortlessly, with the almost musical rhythms of the big, often dysfunctional community D’Amour has imagined. But too often “Airline Highway” lectures us as it lays out the dilemma of human existence, and the tension between the haves and the have-nots, between those driven by passion and those driven by discipline, and between those who bond out of necessity and empathy, and those who lose sight of love as they pursue the good life.
The play unfolds in the parking lot in front of The Hummingbird, a now tattered motel (Scott Pask’s photo realist set is spectacular, with color supplied by David Zinn’s Salvation Army store-meets-Mardi Gras-style costumes). The place serves as a single-room-occupancy residence for a down-and-out group of tightly bonded misfits, many of whom have known each other for years. And on this day, preparations are underway for a party — the “living funeral” of Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), a fabled burlesque queen who has been a quasi-maternal figure to all of them over the years and who is about to breathe her last breath. (Roberts, a striking figure, makes magic of her monologue late in the play, even if the whole thing bears too much of the author’s voice.)
The Hummingbird is managed by Wayne (Scott Jaeck, in fine form as the older guy who happily spins his life’s story), with Terry (a wonderfully subtle Tim Edward Rhoze) as the handyman forever trying to make repairs so he can earn some extra money. Among the long-term residents are: Tanya (a beautifully nuanced Kate Buddeke), a life-long prostitute with a heart of gold and a deep well of guilt; Sissy Na Na (the razor sharp K. Todd Freeman), a drag queen with just enough edge to protect his heart of gold; and Krista (the supremely real Caroline Neff), a stripper yearning for love and a better life, but perhaps too emotionally wounded to accept it.
It is the return of Krista’s former boyfriend, Bait Boy (Stephen Louis Grush), that causes much of the most palpable tension. A classic bad boy who worked as the womanizing emcee at the local karaoke bar, he left Krista after a long relationship and married a wealthy woman in Atlanta. Now he has arrived at The Hummingbird with his 16-year-old stepdaughter, Zoe (the lovely Carolyn Braver), who is aware of her privilege but becomes D’Amour’s rather heavy-handed target of mockery as she homes in on the people in her father’s past for a high school sociology project. She is, as it turns out, quite a fast learner, coached in part by the old bike-riding hippie-poet Francis (spot-on Gordon Joseph Weiss).
This is a hugely ambitious play, streaked with much humor and heartfelt talk. And there is a particularly wonderful sequence in which several of the characters take turns singing “improvised” verses. But really, isn’t there something terribly naive and simplistic about the belief that the souls of the dispossessed are innately nobler than those of the strivers?