Nothing—not addiction, not poverty, not despair, not even death—can break up the party at the seedy Hummingbird Motel in New Orleans, where a motley crew of survivors have washed up and clung together on the cusp of life's maelstroms, forming a jury-rigged family out of desperate necessity, a haphazard emotional bulwark against the inexorable tidal pull of all their bad choices. It's a place most of us would rather not spend the night, a real fleabag littered with empty liquor bottles languishing alongside a depressing highway, and yet this is their home, as conjured up by the empathetic hand of playwright Lisa D'Amour.
This being New Orleans, death is a fine excuse for a party here at the Hummingbird, where the action, such as it is, unfolds over the course of 24 hours in the first week of May 2015. Death, in fact, is expected at the party, which is being held in the honor of beloved burlesque dancer and nightclub impresario Miss Ruby, who has asked that her wake be held while she is still alive to enjoy it. Miss Ruby, tended to by a nurse in her room at the top of the stairs, is hanging on for dear life like the rest of the Hummingbird's denizens, who include Krista, a homeless stripper; Tanya, an aging prostitute; Sissy Na Na, a tough yet flamboyant hustler; and Francis, a broke poet bon vivant reveling in romanticized squalor.
And many others. Defying Broadway producers' preference for straight plays with small casts and huge stars, Airline Highway is brimming with eccentric characters brought to gnarly life by the reliably great Steppenwolf Theater Company out of Chicago. The milieu and plot outline may sound depressing on paper—an indigent old dancer on her deathbed is drunkenly feted by a group of people whom mainstream society might classify as deadbeats—but remember that this is New Orleans, irrepressible city of gritty survivors and death-defying dreamers.
Airline Highway's story isn't complicated; as the preparations for Miss Ruby's party are made, the various satellites of the Hummingbird drift into her orbit. They've all seen better days, yet their reverence and hope for the present day, despite all the trash and failure building up around the edges, is irresistible. The influence of Tennessee Williams's Camino Real flickers throughout, but D'Amour charts her constellation of misfits with a tender touch, and a humorous buoyancy prevails throughout their self-inflicted turbulence.
I'm shying away from any further narrative details because Airline Highway is best enjoyed blind, and the plot points aren't what make it charming, despite its flaws. D'Amour's play is a loving yet incomplete party that's missing a compelling narrative hook, yet it still succeeds on its own terms. You may feel, as I did, that the whole adds up to a bit less than the sum of its parts, but you don't feel cheated when the parts break your heart with such vivid color.
The Hummingbird is a place most of us might blaze by in rental car on our way back to the airport, sparing a pitiful glance at the congregation of degenerates killing time out front. But there are no "losers" among them; these are fellow humans with dignity and dreams—D'Amour is here to remind us they are in many ways feeling life more completely than capitalism's self-appointed winners. Spend a couple of hours getting to know them before they're gone.
Airline Highway, which was nominated for four Tony awards, closes on June 7th. You can get tickets here.