The cast of Virginia Repertory Theatre's "Airline Highway," which runs through Feb. 12 (Photo by Aaron Sutten courtesy Virginia Rep)
All I can say is, I needed “Airline Highway.” I can’t guarantee that the big, messy New Orleans-set piece, written by NOLA native and award-winning playwright Lisa D’Amour, will appeal to everyone — but the ones who will see the production at Virginia Repertory Theatre through Feb. 12 are in for a Mardi Gras-decorated treat. “Airline” is a party with a play in it. The constant flow of action occurs in the believably rendered parking lot of the Hummingbird Motel and gives us one day and night among the inhabitants.
The show, directed by Laine Satterfield, reminded me of two disparate artistic endeavors. First, a Robert Altman film, like “Nashville,” with a big cast of definite characters and overlapping, musical dialogue; in “Airline,” spoken-word arias are often offered simultaneously. Second, a novella by Dostoevsky called “The Gambler” — now, wait a minute; let me explain — though the motivation for the over-arching theme of “Airline” is a living wake for a dying burlesque queen (Miss Ruby, portrayed by Starlet Knight), in the Russian story, the protagonist, a tutor with a roulette problem, is waiting to inherit from an ill aunt in Moscow who, through most of the book, resolutely refuses to die. But (like Miss Ruby), she’s carried from upstairs rooms and rolled in a chair to Roulettenburg, where she eagerly hits the tables. Miss Ruby, however, isn’t heading to the casino on her gurney.
Photo by Aaron Sutten courtesy Virginia Rep
In “The Gambler” there is plenty of sardonic humor alongside the themes of addiction and passion, which “Airline” shares. But here, too, are the strains of John Kennedy O’Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” Tennessee Williams plays and the stories of Ellen Gilchrist. This is jazz and blues.
The grotty roadside motels of the Airline Highway are getting swept away in post-Hurricane Katrina redevelopment. The beleaguered manager of the Hummingbird, Wayne (Barry Pruitt), is struggling to keep the place alive. A Hummingbird Hotel actually existed until 2001 in NOLA on St. Charles Avenue near 19th-century Julia Row. The Hummingbird’s 24-hour diner, described in the online Gayot guide as “an adjunct to a frayed-at-the-edges hotel where rooms are payable in advance and the desk clerk doubles as the cashier for the dining room. Not even greasy spoon does it justice.” While not in any Zagat guide, the Hummingbird gained a beloved bohemian reputation.
Thus D’Amour does what you’d think a New Orleanian would: She creates from these elements a dramatic gumbo. The Hummingbird residents and hangers-on gather to administer a send-off rite to Miss Ruby. This includes reminiscences of her performance-art routines and Sunday lectures about human sexuality.
Among those who gather is Emma Orelove as Krista, a stripper now temporarily without residence and income. The actor, from Richmond and living in New York, was one of several featured in our “Richmond to Broadway” story.
Her Krista is a blend of desperation suffused with a desire to improve her lot — especially since her ex-longtime boyfriend, whom she knew as Bait Boy, now goes by Greg (Langdon Nagle).
Photo by Aaron Sutten courtesy Virginia Rep
I had the great privilege of actually being onstage with Andrew Firda and Nagel in a staged reading of M*A*S*H scripts for the Mighty Pen Project.
Firda then played the uptight Major Frank Burns, but here he gets to go wooly and cosmic with the poet Francis. He rides a bike into the action. The character is based on D’Amour’s friend Danny Kerwick. Kerwick’s explanation of how he and others came to New Orleans — “either a woman or my car broke down, or both” — coincides with similar explanations for people I’ve known who showed up in this River City.
Nagel was Hawkeye Pierce in the “M*A*S*H” reading, Thomas Jefferson in the recent Virginia Rep production of “1776,” and here plays a former Hummingbirder who has seemingly joined the straight world in Atlanta. His reunion with Krista is fraught. Greg has brought along his stepdaughter, 16-year-old Zoe (a wonderful Kat Collins), who wants to interview the Hummgbirders for a school report. The assortment includes Sissy Na-Na, a drag queen played with grand enthusiasm by Anthony Wright, Tanya, the den mother and a middle-aged prostitute, (a believably world-weary and wise Susan Sanford), and Terry (Iman Shabazz), the earnest if less-than-handy handyman, and a slinking Judge Harmon (Bill Blair).
One of the stars of the show doesn’t say a word but becomes dressed in party favors. The Hummingbird set, designed by Kate Field, complete with suitably burnt-out neon, door lamps and a bedraggled office, which gets decorated by the Hummingbirds in anticipation of Miss Ruby’s passing, and the stage lighting of Lynne M. Hartman, which marks the hours of this long day’s journey into night. The costumes of Emily Tappan capture the characters, poised as they are for this celebration of life during JazzFest.
Beyond the rough edges and partying, this is a play about transitions and those living in the margins, the ones who serve the drinks and provide the entertainment — and "local color" — for the tourist droves. They can't be anything else but themselves. Krista tries to pose as a "paralegal assistant," thinking this sounds official enough to be believed by Zoe and Greg. She's young enough to know that things can be better. Getting there is the problem. They're all doing what they can to survive. Yet, if Airline Highway" was a musical, you'd leave singing. And you just might, anyway.
Virginia Rep's "Airline Highway" runs at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St., through Feb. 12. The production is recommended for ages 16 and up, as it contains mature language and content.