First time Broadway playwright Lisa D’Amour is VERY lucky indeed to have the magnificent 80-year-old actress Judith Roberts in the central role of Miss Ruby in “Airline Highway” which just opened on Broadway.
In what is essentially a two-act introduction to her character’s entrance, a one-time stripper-turned-night-club manager/hostess, Miss Ruby is talked about constantly and referred to for the entire length of the play. The residents of the Hummingbird Motel, (too much like the “Hot L Baltimore” for my tastes) a motley crew of down-and-outers, strippers, drag queens, hookers, drug addicts, dealers, some homeless, you get the picture, form “a sub-culture”, according to a teenage sociologist, who wanders in, and they are planning to throw a funeral party for Miss Ruby who is in “the last ten hours” of her long life.
It’s a messy mixture of overlapping dialogue and immature insights, yet it builds and builds to Miss Ruby’s finale entrance in HUGE red wig on a hospital gurney. And Roberts as Ruby doesn’t disappoint. In several inspiring set-pieces delivered literally flat on her back from the gurney, Ms. Roberts, in a part she seems to have been waiting for all her career, wakes up to tell her friends and revelers, “Am I in a parking lot?” Which she is.
And it forms a part of the Airline Highway of the title, a bereft scummy suburb of New Orleans, and it’s Jazz Festival week.It’s a seamy, swampy section the Big Easy, a city were they Mardi Gras never ends.
You can hear a pin drop as Miss Ruby delivers several fiery speeches culminating with her exclaiming “I am never going to die!” And of course, not too long after, she does.
Sad, sassy, silly,messy and massively redundant, “Airline Highway” builds its improvisatory, Steppenwolf-style to Miss Ruby’s penultimate shining moments. And thank god Judith Roberts is there to deliver on their promise!
She renders “Airline Highway” inspiring.
T.Todd Freeman as Sissy Na-Na, the prerequisite black drag queen, makes this stereotypical role as fun and well-rounded as it could possibly be.
And the great Julie White does a complete 360 as a washed-up stripper prostitute in a dramatic role which she is a complete surprise in. She won a Tony for “Little Dog Laughed” playing a comic role, which is her usual metier.
Both Freeman and White received Drama Desk nominations for Best Featured Actor and Actress in a Play, but it is the un-sung Judith Roberts, who triumphs in the end in her uplifting life-affirming arias even as her life is ending.