A close friend of mine once told me that the idea of eulogies eluded him since it made more sense to share kind words with the living rather than about them once they’ve gone. He shares the same sentiment with Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), the dying matriarchal figure in Lisa D’Amour’s heartfelt drama Airline Highway.
Direct from Chicago’s Steppenwolf, Airline Highway takes us to the parking lot of the Hummingbird motel, an unsavory dilapidated refuge for the downtrodden of New Orleans. Miss Ruby, once the beautiful grand dame of the Hummingbird and caretaker of her “little duckies”, is nearing her death and wants to go out in style. With the help of motel manager Wayne (Scott Jaeck), Tanya (Julie White) , a worn out, but but beautifully broken prostitute, Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman) , a flamboyant drag artist, Francis (Ken Marks), a half-baked bohemian who lives life with carefree aplomb, and Krista (Caroline Neff), a returning visitor to the Hummingbird, each pull together to recall fond memories and bury some secrets from their past.
Bait Boy (Joe Tippett) returns for the day’s festivity as well, along with his significant other’s daughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver). Bait Boy was once an inhabitant of the Hummingbird, but escaped to Atlanta for a better life. Zoe has joined him on the pilgrimage to write a school paper on sub-cultures. She has come to the right place, for there are fewer colorful spots and characters along this stretch. Her pie-eyed view of the world is shattered, however, when her subjects defiantly object to the fact that Zoe wants to encapsulate their life into one article in one afternoon. How are lives stuffed with dashed dreams, endless struggle, regret and poverty summarized in one paper?
D’Amour delivers a genuine cast of vagabonds filled with grace and dignity, bringing to mind David Newman, Ira Gasman, and Cy Coleman’s heartwarming musical about Times Square hookers in 1997’s musical The Life. Though they lead unconventional lives, each soul offers searing personal stories of where they’ve been and what they could-or won’t-ever be.
It is not simply good luck that explains why Tony Voters gave Airline Highway four nominations. Under Joe Mantello’s masterful hand, the show reminds us of our own good fortunes, evokes empathy for those who don’t have them, and instills an unbreakable appreciation and zest for life.
Airline Highway is now playing on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th street between Broadway and 8th. Tickets available at http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/season-tickets/ or by visiting the box office.