7:52 am Jan. 31, 2011
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore could hardly be described as under-appreciated. The play, by Tennessee Williams, is not often performed, it's true, but it’s a middling work, one that almost feels like a pastiche written by someone whose admiration for Williams outweighs his understanding of him. Take the contentious mother-daughter relationship from Glass Menagerie, the bottled-up female sexuality from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the creepy attraction to much younger men from Streetcar Named Desire, the exotic seaside setting of Suddenly Last Summer, and bits and pieces of at last half a dozen other works and you’ll have Milk Train.
All of that makes the driving spirit and defiantly un-maudlin, over-the-top treatment of the play currently staged by Roundabout Theatre Company a pleasant surprise.
Much of the spirit emanates from Olympia Dukakis, around whom this lavish production was planned. (Director Michael Wilson first convinced her to take on the role two seasons ago at Harford Stages.) She plays Flora Goforth, a wealthy widow holed up in her Italian villa as she struggles to finish her memoirs before her unnamed illness finishes her off.
Dukakis shamelessly chews the scenery, hardly surprising because the set by Jeff Cowie is particularly fantastic—a golden-hued beach house whose walls and ceiling are honeycombed with windows letting in an impossibly blue sky. Her operatic performance includes many deathbed scenes that are immediately followed by triumphant returns punctuated by cruel tirades aimed at anyone within reach of her loudspeakers. (A pharmacy full of pills and injections aids these revivals.) One moment she is withered and wan, the next she flings back the curtains of her room wearing a turquoise turban and paisley caftan or a persimmon evening gown and flaming red wig. David C. Woolard’s costumes are campy, colorful, and hugely entertaining.
The brunt of her wrath falls on Blackie, her longsuffering secretary, nursemaid, and whatever else might be required at the moment. It’s not much of a role, little more than a sounding board for Flora, but Maggie Lacey brings a lovely deep sadness and quiet dignity to the job.
None of her boss' antics are the least bit believable, especially when she appears in a kimono and lacquered wig to wave around two fans in a spirited Japanese dance. But it’s fun, and Dukakis is working so hard that you forget that the play doesn’t always make sense. Even Flora needs some help understanding what’s going on, so she calls in the Witch of Capri, played here by the indispensable Edward Hibbert. This bringer of bad tidings was originally played by a woman, but has had a sex change ever since Noël Coward took on the role in a little-remembered film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. When it comes to scenery chomping, Hibbert matches Dukakis bite for bite, and is clearly having a great meal. When he offers a male servant a few lira in exchange for a post-dinner tête-a-tête, you wonder how the role was ever credibly handled by a woman.
Into Flora’s life stumbles Christopher Flanders (Darren Pettie), a much younger (but no longer really young) writer who she is told has the unfortunate habit of moving in with elderly women during their final days. Locals call the handsome man the Angel of Death, according to the spiteful, and somewhat envious, Witch of Capri. Much of the second act consists of their verbal sparring, with Flora assuming, perhaps mistakenly, that he is just a freeloader, a gigolo, or both. She makes the penniless poet beg for a cigarette, then informs him that the cost is a kiss. When he refuses, she callously throws the pieces in his face.
Christopher tries to convince Flora that he’s more than a con man, while she in turn argues that she’s not really dying and doesn’t require his services. This goes on for quite a while, and pseudo-spirituality gets tiresome. (Everything is weighted down with symbolism, beginning with Christopher’s name.) But although Williams doesn’t seem to have much original to say about death, he does say it beautifully, and Dukakis and Pettie bring poignancy to their lines.
Wilson has worked a miracle, transforming a play that has always been dismissed as a flop. You get the feeling that had it been written by someone other than Williams it might have been taken more seriously. Dukakis deserves equal praise here, as her drive to find the essence of Flora has revealed the character to be, for perhaps the first time, a respectable part of the Williams pantheon. She is no Amanda Wingfield or Maggie the Cat, but she lands proudly on all feet.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is playing at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, between 6th and 7th avenues. Tickets are $71 to $81 and are available at 212-719-1300 or www.roundaboutthreatre.org.
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