WWOZ FM blares in the background and clothes are hung over the railing to dry at a pink motel on Airline Highway. Francis (Thomas Francis Murphy), an unshaven and disheveled man wearing a Defend New Orleans T-shirt and feathered crash helmet, bicycles onstage, carrying a basket of Mardi Gras beads. Hummingbird Motel residents sit on plastic chairs in the parking lot, where they are planning a "living funeral" for Miss Ruby (Janet Shea), a beloved neighbor who owned a strip club in her younger days. In other cities, these goings-on might seem exotic, but in New Orleans, it's just another day.
Airline Highway, written by Lisa D'Amour and directed by Southern Rep's Aimee Hayes, could be described by the cliche, "truth is stranger than fiction." First produced at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and then on Broadway last year, Airline Highway is populated with colorful New Orleans types, who are living on the edge and in the moment and form a supportive community at a seedy motel. The show is full of humor, which is well-delivered, but its originality is undercut by the fact that we can see similar scenes every day.
Casting and characterizations in Airline Highway are excellent. The Hummingbird's manager, Wayne (Carl Palmer), tells rambling and pointless stories. Though his approach to property management is blase, he has a big heart when an occupant's rent is late or not forthcoming at all. Terry (Lance E. Nichols), an ad hoc handyman, never could afford a ticket to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The closest he ever got was delivering 25 portable toilets, only to have his flatbed truck towed.
An aging prostitute, Tanya (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis), organizes Miss Ruby's funeral, stringing lights and crepe paper and setting up a bar, making the dingy set festive for the close-knit group. She is well-loved and practices her profession as discreetly as possible.
"We have to go down a long, strange road to be who we are," Tanya says.
Sissy Na Na (Chivas Michael), a transgender woman who lives at the motel, is a highlight of the show. In her gold lame pants, high boots and pageboy wigs, she struts around the stage, singing in an impressive falsetto to get and keep the party going. The dark underside of the incessant partying by motel residents becomes apparent in the abusive relationship between Krista (Elizabeth Daniels) and Greg (Todd d'Amour), aka Bait Boy.
Sociological analysis arrives on the scene via Zoe (Madeline Kolker), an Atlanta high school student who comes with Greg, Krista's former boyfriend. Zoe is writing a school paper about subcultures and finds her subjects at the Hummingbird. However difficult and different their lives, the motel's long-term residents stick together like family. Zoe is so swept up by the accepting atmosphere that she doesn't want to leave.
Miss Ruby lovingly calls her entourage "the most gorgeous group of f—k-ups."
A Broadway audience might see these characters as misfits, but New Orleanians embrace them as our own — people that make the city unique.