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“Airline Highway” Ensemble Captures Spirit of New Orleans

Visitors to New Orleans know the city for a variety of reasons – Mardi Gras celebrations, jazz nightlife, Hurricane Katrina. But not many see the gritty side of the city where people who can barely scrape up a dollar between them struggle with everything from addictions to prostitution.

Kat Collin and Emma Orelove. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

It’s that seedy side of the city that jumps out in Virginia Rep’s current production of Airline Highway. And yes, Airline Highway is an actual transportation artery in New Orleans, leading to the airport among other places.

The show takes place at the scruffy Hummingbird Motel inhabited by a group of societal misfits. Their lives individually hold a lot of pain and suffering, but together they have formed their own community, one where people actually care about each other and celebrate each other’s victories.

While they do debate their differences, they also give advice and support. They have become family, albeit dysfunctional much of the time.

As the play opens, they are getting ready to throw a spirited New Orleans going away party for Miss Ruby, a performer who wanted to be present at the celebration of her life. Miss Ruby lives at the hotel and is currently dying there. Other hotel residents include Sissy Na Na, a drag queen who is trying to fulfill Miss Ruby’s wishes, and Tanya, a prostitute past her prime. Krista, a young stripper who longs for a better life, has had to relinquish her room because she couldn’t pay the rent.

Lennon Hu, Landon Nagel, and Jacqueline O’Connor. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

New Orleans has its own rhythm and laughter and so does Airline Highway. The show mixes the sensuality of the city’s vibe with an over indulgence that seems to have no escape. People ponder their mistakes but still find enjoyment in the moments of life they deem important.

The ensemble cast works well together even though singular stories tend to overlap as conservations are overpowered by other conversations. The quick tempo made it difficult for this reviewer to focus attention on individual characters and their stories. Even though the play itself seems too drawn out, the acting on stage is solid.

Performances by Susan Sanford (Tanya), Emma Orelove (Krista), Iman Shabazz (Terry), a man who likes to fix things, and Kat Collin (Zoe), a 16-year-old visitor, are honest and thoughtful. Anthony Wright’s over-the-top role as Sissy Na Na doesn’t disappoint.

Kate Field’s set design, married with Lynne Hartman’s lighting design, really paints a picture that steps from the stage to reality. Emily Tappan’s vibrant costumes bring it all to life.

Airline Highway is well acted and visually authentic, but it isn’t for everyone. It contains adult language and situations as well as all the liveliness of Mardi Gras – think flashes of bare chest. With that said, the messages it leaves you with – making the most of moments with friends and accepting others – are important messages to remember, especially in these days and times.

Airline Highway is playing at Virginia Rep’s November Theatre through February 12. Click for showtimes and tickets.

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