The cast of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Airline Highway
The cast of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Airline Highway Credit: Michael Brosilow

In the contemporary New Orleans of Lisa D’Amour’s new drama Airline Highway, given an alternately stagnant and rousing Steppenwolf world premiere, only two types of people exist: the authentics and the inauthentics. Here, as in so many American plays over the past several decades, the authentics are the downtrodden, the unconventional, the penniless, the permanently marginalized. The inauthentics, by contrast, occupy the center wherever they go, remaking the world after their consumerist ideals, shopping at Whole Foods, taking Zumba classes, making crafty candles.

D’Amour brings these two worlds into deliberate collision in the parking lot of the faded Hummingbird Motel, occupied by a ragtag coterie of authentics whose lives are perpetually cheapened—when acknowledged at all—by the tourists and yuppies who surround their Latin Quarter oasis. The Costco that will soon open across the street symbolizes the relentless homogenizing force that threatens to erase their very existence. Given the life-and-death stakes D’Amour concocts, one might expect at least some of her authentics—Krista, a homeless stripper; Tanya, a substance-abusing sex worker; Sissy, a sassy, gold-hearted tranny; Terry, an aimless handyman; Francis, a free-spirited poet; and Wayne, the Hummingbird’s laissez-faire manager—to feel a bit of urgency in trying to preserve their homestead. They’re no strangers to collective action, after all; they’ve spent years under the radical tutelage of Miss Ruby, a burlesque performer and self-made social activist who now lies dying in an upper-floor room. In fact, they’ve all gathered to throw her a predeath funeral.

But like a lot of contemporary playwrights, D’Amour shows more interest in texture than action. For almost the entire first act, her authentics do little but hang out and display their largely unremarkable quirks and rather predictable traumas for the audience’s edification. That leaves terrific actors like Caroline Neff as Krista, Kate Buddeke as Tanya, and K. Todd Freeman as Sissy with little to do but hit the same notes repeatedly and occasionally pontificate on the invaluable nature of their unconventional lives. “Each of us is responsible for holding up a very special part of the universe,” Sissy hyperbolizes, insisting that without them the universe would collapse.

Into the mix D’Amour injects Bait Boy, a former Hummingbird denizen who married rich and fled. He’s now persona non grata among his former fellow freaks, and he’s torn between rekindling his outsider spirit and returning to his wife’s McMansion. He brings along Zoe, his 16-year-old stepdaughter, who wants to interview everyone for a research paper on “subcultures” she’s writing. It turns out she’s suffocating under the conformist demands of bourgeois normalcy. So you know what lesson she’s going to learn.

And that’s one big problem with D’Amour’s slice-of-life drama, which is headed to Broadway next spring: it’s less interested in giving characters fully fleshed-out lives than in teaching a Big Lesson about the importance of embracing the unconventional, defying the expectations of consumerist culture, and suffering the consequences. D’Amour’s so adamant about this point that she ends up dragging the decrepit, pain-killer-soaked Miss Ruby down a flight of stairs on a stretcher and putting her center stage in one of those magic theater moments (the lights go all moody and the other characters freeze) so she can snap to full lucidity and deliver her final inspirational lecture to the anointed. It’s not a bad lesson to learn, as far as it goes, and director Joe Mantello ultimately provides ample reason to care about this bunch, coaxing deeply compassionate performances from all of his actors.

But the biggest problem with D’Amour’s play is its unwitting endorsement of the kind of bourgeois conformity she intends to condemn. Young Zoe embodies the mindset D’Amour wants corrected. She views the Hummingbird inhabitants as exotic others to be examined for her own gratification, imagining she can get their “full stories” in a couple of hours. Yet her agenda is identical to the playwright’s. D’Amour spends two hours holding up her otherized characters to public scrutiny—not so that we might understand the full complexities of their lives but so that we can learn a useful lesson. It doesn’t help that her depiction of “the underclass” conforms to classist stereotypes of the poor: they’re earthier, less motivated, more emotionally labile, and generally less clothed than the monied classes like Zoe.

It’s telling that D’Amour describes her characters as living “on the fringes and behind the scenes.” That’s only true if you define the center as anywhere they aren’t and the scene as anything they don’t do.