A group of addicts, sex workers, and nightclub regulars gather at the Hummingbird Motel in New Orleans to celebrate the life of ailing burlesque performer and community matriarch, Miss Ruby. The group is a family of sorts, and a dysfunctional one at that. Having known each other for years, none of them seem to have been able to free themselves from their own particular rut. For example, Krista is a young stripper highly dependent on others for her own self-confidence. She used to reside at the motel but is now homeless and worse off than ever. Tanya is an aging prostitute with a drug addiction whose past fills her with regret.

Complicating things is the return of Krista’s ex, Bait Boy, now Greg. Bait Boy left New Orleans to shack up with an older, wealthier woman in Atlanta and is on track to becoming a ‘normal’ middle-class, white-collar man. He arrives to Miss Ruby’s funeral with his step-daughter, Zoe, an honor roll student writing an anthropology paper on ‘subcultures,’ a term that implies inferiority in more ways than one.  She decides to write about the Hummingbird Motel gang. The characters resist Zoe’s detached, scientific  study of their lifestyle and consistently remark on the foolish notion that one night spent with them could result in a comprehensive analysis of their lives and behaviors.

The cast of Airline Highway. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Zoe’s reductive study is a healthy reminder to the audience to not approach the characters in the same way. Audiences often walk out of a play with the assumption that the play has provided a whole and comprehensive view of its theme or characters, and we can then summarize either with a simplified statement or message.For some plays, this is the endgame: Spend two hours with a small group of people and understand what they’re all about by curtain call.

Lisa D’Amour sophisticated script, however, acknowledges two important things–1) you can’t ‘figure’ someone out by observing a fraction of their daily lives, and 2) that act of detached study is an act of superiority, especially when the subjects are perceived as lower on the socioeconomic ladder. There’s a world of depth to her characters.  Any realistic representation of them is assuredly incomplete, and we can only do our best to respect their truths and experience their lives.

Happily, Steppenwolf makes this an easier task with a lineup of courageous performances. Though Julie White and K. Todd Freeman deserve their Tony nominations (as Tanya and Sissy Na Na, respectively) it’s hard to isolate any one of these complicated and indisputably honest portrayals. D’Amour’s dialogue is rich and nonlinear, jumping between characters and interactions so that the result is a clutter of intricately woven fractals, seamlessly directed by Joe Mantello. Airline Highway is messy, it’s fragmented, it alternates wildly between joy and disappointment. But that’s life. And somehow, it magically bonds together into a brilliant and exciting piece.

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Airline Highway runs through June 7 at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater