A colleague of mine once told me that bartenders in Ireland will sometimes chase customers out at closing time by pointedly asking them, “Have you no homes to go to?” The American closing-time refrain, memorialized in many a country song, is “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” In Lisa D’Amour’s 2014 play Airline Highway, the party and home are one and the same: all the action takes place on a single day in the parking lot of a run-down hotel outside New Orleans, during which the hotel’s more-or-less permanent residents plan, throw, and then try to recover from a party celebrating their dying matriarch, the former burlesque queen Miss Ruby. Like the party, the play itself celebrates the tenuous joy of a life shared by a community for whom family and home are both all-important and imperiled. Like the soon to be departed Miss Ruby, many of these characters have reached the point where they can no longer stay here; and yet, because the Hummingbird Hotel is still their only shelter from a hostile world, they also can’t go home.
In its preoccupation with a beloved but increasingly uninhabitable home, Airline Highway is both strikingly contemporary and deeply rooted in the history of modern American drama. In Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Theater, Una Chaudhuri identified the problem of “home” as a special obsession for American playwrights. The rise of realism at the end of the nineteenth century established the home as the dominant stage setting; and from Tennessee Williams to Eugene O’Neill to Sam Shepard, American playwrights kept bringing prodigal protagonists back to the homes they’d left, there to wrestle with family members and with unresolved traumas in “realism’s eternal room” (Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis 26). But long before the subprime housing crisis of 2008–long before hurricane Katrina wrecked the New Orleans in which Airline Highway’s characters grew up–these same playwrights were revealing deep-seated anxieties about the instability, perhaps even the impossibility, of home as either an actual or metaphorical space. In Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois has lost or been driven out of more than one home before she turns up at the Kowalskis’ cramped apartment; her last attempt to make herself at home is shattered by Stanley’s malice and violence. In O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the ramshackle New England house into which James Tyrone has sunk all of money fails to shelter anyone inside it–least of all the Tyrone family’s morphine-addicted mother, Mary, who repeatedly laments that it has never been a home for her. Chicago’s own Tracy Letts has carried this theme forward into the twenty-first century with August: Osage County, in which the children and grandchildren of a sparring husband and wife return to their enormous family home and fill it with drama and dysfunction.
Airline Highway, rather than extending this tradition, radicalizes it for a new America in which even a dysfunctional home is increasingly out of reach for an increasing number of people. Aspects of these American classics turn up in Airline Highway–a matriarch is dying; a prodigal son returns to an estranged family; a woman battles her opioid addiction–but in a precarious environment in which both “home” and “family” are redefined. Miss Ruby presides not over her own descendants but over a found family made up of people who long ago lost or left their own. The Hummingbird Hotel, originally built for temporary occupants who were just passing through, has accumulated a community of permanent residents with nowhere else to go. The party that these characters are organizing is a manifestation of the communal life they have been building in this space for years: a life of spontaneous joy, deliberate love, and ephemeral beauty–which is also a life of chronic insecurity, unhealed trauma, and ongoing pain. Miss Ruby’s imminent death foreshadows the loss of the hotel itself, which is disintegrating; under external economic pressures, the Hummingbird is losing its ability to function as a home for the homeless. Accordingly, the hotel has receded not only from the play’s title but from the stage space. In the parking lot, all the characters–even those still housed at the Hummingbird–appear to us already exposed, already in danger of being swept away.
The Hummingbird, in that sense, is a microcosm of post-Katrina New Orleans. A survivor of calamity, the Hummingbird is slowly succumbing to neglect, as the surviving aspects of New Orleans’s pre-Katrina culture are increasingly cleared, colonized, or co-opted for the benefit of the tourists who keep traveling along Airline Highway but no longer stop at the Hummingbird. In classic New Orleans fashion, however, tragedy becomes a source of celebration as the community comes together for what might be their final opportunity to use what Miss Ruby has taught them. Zoe, an outsider brought into the community by the prodigal son Bait Boy, functions as a stand-in for realism’s middle-class spectator, who goes to the theater to be entertained by the pain of other people. But Zoe’s project at least offers the hope that this community may avoid the fate most feared by Sissy Na Na: that everything Miss Ruby taught them will die along with her and be forgotten. Through this production of Airline Highway, the cast and crew are fighting off that fate by recreating–for a couple hours a night–the power and the peril of choosing your family, and the hope and the heartbreak of life on the edge of catastrophe.