West Coast premieres of plays are a pretty big deal, and while San Diego hosts some each season, it is usually the large theatres doing the hosting. So, for ion Theatre to present not only the West Coast premiere but also the third professional production of Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway is a pretty big deal, indeed.
The play suits the artistic temperament of co-artistic directors Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza. Set in a gone-to-seed motel along the road to the New Orleans airport, it features a cast of people who are barely getting by but who act, much of the time, as though they don’t care about that fact. Several of them are long-term residents of the motel, and their residence has sometimes served as a gathering place for not only the residents but their friends as well.
The event that drives the action is a funeral party, which is being held in the parking lot of the motel. The funeral is for Miss Ruby (Elaine Litton) and is being held at her request – Miss Ruby, one of the motel’s long-term residents, wanted to have it before she actually died. Act 1 consists of preparations for the party, including introducing a large group of motel residents and people in their lives. Act 2 shows the party itself.
Miss Ruby’s friends and neighbors are a rag-tag bunch. There’s Krista (Dana Fares), a stripper, Tanya (Beverly Baker), a gone-to-seed prostitute, Sissy Na Na (Kevane La’Marr Coleman), a drag performer with a sassy mouth, and Francis (Tim West), a bum who writes poetry. The motel is overseen by resident manager Wayne (Mr. Paris) and Terry (Rhys Greene), the handyman.
Arriving in time for the party is Greg, otherwise known as Bait Boy (Richard Johnson), who’s in a somewhat tenuous relationship with a “cougar” (wealthy woman who dates younger men). Zoe (Natasha Partnoy), the woman’s daughter, has come along with the idea that she will interview the residents for a paper she’s writing for a class at school.
Of course, Bait Boy (no one will call him Greg) becomes the catalyst for things to unravel, at least some. There’s more than a little Tennessee Williams here, though Ms. D’Amour’s ambitions are nowhere near as high as the standard set by Mr. Williams. Airline Highway does succeed quite nicely at showing how these characters survive – and it’s mostly through collective grit despite all the “stuff” that life throws at them.
Ms. Fares and Mr. Johnson have the showy roles, but it’s the dignity that comes through in the portrayals of the other characters that has Ms. Partnoy’s character (the on-stage surrogate for the audience) wide-eyed and open mouthed. Mr. Coleman is particularly fine, but all of the other principals register at one point or another.
It’s a big cast (there are six other performers who constitute the “ensemble”) on a big two-story set with a junked car parked in front (Mr. Raygoza directed and designed both the set and the sound; company member Karin Filijan designed the lighting). The show doesn’t fit into BLKBOX, the company’s theatre, so it’s performing at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center (930 Tenth Ave, between Broadway and E Streets) through September 3. It’s clearly a labor of love, and audiences will appreciate how that love shines through.