Lisa D'Amour Brings New Orleans to Life In Broadway-Bound Airline Highway

Her 15-character play premieres at Steppenwolf Theatre Company before transferring to Manhattan Theatre Club.

Lisa D'Amour is the author of Airline Highway at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Lisa D'Amour is the author of Airline Highway at Steppenwolf Theatre.

"I never know quite exactly what I'm setting out to do when I start a project," says Lisa D'Amour, the multidisciplinary theater maker whose work runs the gamut from massive-scale performance installations like How to Build a Forest (in which an entire forest is constructed and deconstructed over eight hours) to the one-setting, five-character Pulitzer finalist Detroit, a 2012 production of Playwrights Horizons. "I really just start with an impulse and kind of ride with it."

For her latest effort, a sprawling 15-character piece called Airline Highway, that impulse was to write about her hometown. "It's taken me a long time to really be brave enough to write about New Orleans," the Louisiana native says. "It's a really hard city to capture even when you know and love it." Part of the allure was the opportunity to write a "large-scale ensemble play" for one of the great ensemble theater companies, Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, which commissioned the work and will premiere it under the direction of Joe Mantello from December 4-February 8.

The other part of the allure was, as the production notes state, to showcase the way "New Orleans celebrates its elders." Airline Highway concerns a motley crew of friends, a "rag-tag collection of strippers, hustlers, and philosophers" who gather in the parking lot of a formerly glamorous hotel on the stretch of Louisiana's 115-mile Airline Highway, to give their friend, an iconic burlesque performer called Miss Ruby, a living funeral. Miss Ruby herself is inspired by an actual citizen, a similarly legendary performer named Chris Owens, who still takes the stage at her own Bourbon Street nightclub.

D'Amour has more in mind that she wanted to cover in this play, though. Her list of themes also includes "the unsung heroes of the New Orleans tourist industry" as well as "this odd community that might develop in one of these rundown hotels," which are prevalent in NOLA. And the action takes place during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, better known as Jazz Fest. "It's a great time of year," D'Amour declares. "It takes over the city. I was really interested in what people who could not really afford to go to Jazz Fest, or maybe have no interest, are doing."

Following its Steppenwolf run, the production will move to Broadway, playing Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre beginning April 1. In a relatively unheard-of move in this theatrical age, the transfer, capping off MTC's 2014-15 season, was announced before rehearsals even began. D'Amour sees this as an added bonus. "It's really great that it's transferring within a nonprofit environment," she says. "That takes the pressure off in terms of stars." (Indeed, most of the Chicago cast will bring the production to New York.) She thinks the play "manages to point back to the Broadway of days gone by," akin to the "old-fashioned, one-set play in the tradition of Tennessee Williams."

But was Broadway ever on her radar? Not really. "It's not something that's really been a huge goal for me," D'Amour says. "I spent most of my career working in more of an experimental downtown-theater world. Broadway really feels like going to another planet."

K. Todd Freeman (center) and the cast of Airline Highway in rehearsal.
K. Todd Freeman (center) and the cast of Airline Highway in rehearsal.
(© Joel Moorman)

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