With the New Orleans-set Airline Highway, theater heavyweights Lisa D'Amour and Joe Mantello take us a world away from Café du Monde.
Joe Mantello, Tony-winning director of Airline Highway, with its playwright, Lisa D’Amour.
New Orleans has long been the focus of many a creative musing, from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire to TV’s Treme. Now, playwright Lisa D’Amour, whose backyard-breakdown Detroit was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has set her sights on the Crescent City with Airline Highway. Named for the road that leads to both the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, her latest drama taps into the underside of the Big Easy, as a motley crew of marginal figures gathers in the parking lot of a sad motel to celebrate the life of one of their own—a burlesque performer who has requested a funeral before she dies. Directed by two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello (Take Me Out, Assassins), the Broadway-bound show makes its world premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company on December 4.
“The idea of representing New Orleans in film or TV or the theater is so difficult,” says D’Amour, a fifth-generation New Orleanian. “That’s why I’ve avoided it. It’s hard to remember that New Orleans isn’t just a tourist town—it’s a living, breathing ecosystem. People come wanting to get a little wild, get a little dirty. And the service industry is supposed to do that for them, whether that’s in a bar or a strip joint. This play addresses people who are trying to maintain a sense of tradition, a sense of community, while still having to give in to the demands of what other people want them to be.”
But Airline Highway is not an unabashed paean to the outsiders (including a stripper, a transgender bartender, and an aging hooker) that D’Amour has conjured. Nor does it completely dismiss Bait Boy, the former resident who’s in from Atlanta, where he’s crafted a more conventional existence. “I see so many different kinds of people going out of their way to make sure community happens. I was very interested in letting that unfold. The play doesn’t end well, but you still feel they are there for each other.”
With a large cast and a lot of overlapping dialogue, the show is no neat and tidy package—which suits Rockford native Mantello just fine. “I’m at the point in my career,” he laughs, “where I want to do things that challenge me, that have a high probability of failure. Airline Highway is very dense with characters and things going on at the same time. What first engaged me was how to orchestrate all of that, so you’re getting the information you need to get, and yet it feels like an improv.”
Life is messy. And messy lives can appear alluring in that distance from a theater seat to the stage. Yet, as D’Amour says, “My intention was to get to the everyday texture of these people’s lives, people you might think are lower than you. But you see them at a kind of epic moment, trying to hold it all together, in a way that, maybe, we are all trying to hold it together.” December 4-February 8, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., 312-335-1650