Miss Ruby, erstwhile burlesque diva and longtime resident of the Hummingbird Hotel, is dying. Instead of friends paying tribute to her coffin, Ruby wants her funeral now, while she can still appreciate them.
In Lisa L’Amour’s Detroit, a couple in rehab shows Midwestern Yuppies on hard times the key to liberation. In her Airline Highway, present and past residents of the run-down New Orleans hotel remind each other, briefly, how liberation can feel.
The Airline Highway’s an arrow-straight road built, they say, so Huey Long could have a quicker route from Baton Rouge to the pleasures of New Orleans. In the play, it’s a rundown part of town. Ten years ago, Katrina wiped out “the lower nine” in days. Now gentrification’s erasing the area in increments: they knocked down two pawn shops and a car wash for a new Costco. The Hummingbird may soon follow.
On Claudio Raygoza’s nearly life-sized, fading pink set, clients — aka “Johns” — take the outside stairs to and from Tanya’s room. Terry, an inept handyman, has a smoke on the landing or next to the corpse of a red car on rims in the parking lot.
The car, dented to extinction, could represent the characters. This was the end of its road, which began in California (according to the license plate). But no one towed it away. It has a home, even uses — like being a table for the funeral party.
People come and go. Francis, a throwback to the Beat poets, rides his bicycle and utters aphorisms, like “the real fest is on the edges.” While upstairs, Sissy Na Na, African-American drag queen, care-gives Ruby and monitors the doings of everyone else.
Krista’s the most in motion. Three years ago she and her lover, Bait Boy, broke up — had to since their love/hate relationship threatened to detonate. In the interim, Bait Boy found himself a “sugar mama” — an older woman — in Atlanta. He’s out of the scene but is coming back to pay his respects. He’s brought young Zoe, who may or may not be his stepdaughter.
Zoe’s 16, “but that’s like 45 in Google years.” She’s writing an honors paper for her sociology class on the “subculture” at the hotel. She gets many of the locals to talk, in Act One. Then can’t sum up their experiences in Act Two. Labels don’t fit.
Along with Raygoza’s impressive set, Ion Theatre’s production has many strengths: in particular Dana Fares’s explosive Krista, Kevane La’Marr Coleman’s alert, sassy Sissy Na Na, and Beverly Baker’s Tanya, whose need to quit painkillers incites her pain. The ensemble work, for the most part, is solid (especially Rhys Green, Glenn Paris, and Tim West).
The script has a musical quality. Riffs, often overlapping other riffs, feel syncopated, as if the play’s a verbal take on the Big Easy’s famous Jazz Fest. The night I caught the show, however, the timing beamed on and off. And the cast in general muffled key lines and phrases, either by thick accents or speaking to the floor.
The play recalls Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. The playwright offers obvious clues for interpretation: Ruby’s speech feels forced (“people don’t celebrate in this life”; “release that unknowable part of yourself”; “don’t run from your ragged self”); and Zoe’s inability to summarize reads like a built-in review.
What goes unsaid is more affecting. The revelers experience what Robert Frost called “a momentary stay against confusion.” Ruby held this “family” together. Can they survive her passing?
Playing through September 3