What a title! — “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” What a play — even if it is one of Tennessee Williams’ more ramblingly metaphysical deliberations. It is also intoxicating. Written at the end of his late great period in 1963, “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” should leave no doubt in the mind of anyone who sees it that there may be no such animal as an uninteresting Williams heroine. The ranting and raving of Flora Goforth (Olympia Dukakis), a wealthy, worn-out strumpet, who is dictating her vulgarized, scattershot memoirs to her secretary while she awaits impending death in her reclusive villa on the coast of Italy is arguably the most paranormally embroidered of all Williams’ plays.
That there is also the possibility of her 11th hour deliverance from decadence to salvation that makes it even more tantalizingly bizarre. This is mystically alluded to by a charismatic male who wanders into her life as well as into the life of the equally needy secretary Frances Black a.k.a. “Blackie” (Maggie Lacey).
It is certainly the one play in which Williams’ own introspective musings on life and death are the most graphically dramatized. It is true that the amusingly grotesque performance given by Dukakis may be partly responsible for renewed admiration for a play that seems to have been previously dismissed by one and all as being too enigmatic and the beginning of Williams’ downward creative spiral. However, this fine staging, under the direction of Michael Wilson, bestows its histrionic, yet often plaintive, message about the decline and redemption of the soul with a well tempered touch.
And what of the Witch of Capri, a role tossed willy-nilly from male to female from one production to the next? This time he is the modishly attired Edward Hibbert who slithers around and about Flora’s villa (unpretentiously evoked, except for her exotically/erotically designed round bed by designer Jeff Cowie). Who better than Hibbert, an affectionately affected actor who seems to have a lock on campy grandiloquence, to spew out the Witch of Capri’s venomously-tongued putdowns with scenery-chewing delight — essentially an audience-pandering performance that is, nevertheless, as comical as it is a metaphor for spiritual decadence?
The prevailing aura of death, despair, and decay is offset by the unexpected arrival of Christopher Flanders, a.k.a. the Angel of Death. The role is played with an unaffected virility by Darren Pettie. It may be providential that he appears as a sincerely open-hearted healing agent for both Flora’s and Blackie’s sexual and spiritual renewal. But more profoundly, he assumes the role of a savvy, but also wounded, savior and survivor.
With a tarnished and often abrasive voice, Dukakis, variously wigged and costumed by David C. Woolard, sashays unsteadily about her villa on one occasion en travestie as a sake-soused Kabuki dancer. More often we see her in her true state, a heartless health-ravaged harridan. But Dukakis also gives us much more than a mere spectacle of a society diva dying under the influence of her own regurgitating arias. Flora’s cruelty and vindictiveness to her doggedly patient secretary and her viperfish counter swipes at the Witch are given a grandly impassioned perspective by Dukakis. It is a comically charged portrayal that credibly brings to the fore another aspect of the play: the emotional and psychological bond between Goforth and the playwright.
Adding considerably to this production’s success is Lacey’s performance in the less colorful role of the condescended to but resilient “Blackie.” Brava to Lacey for creating one of the more conspicuously human revitalizations of a heretofore shadowy Williams character. Not only does Lacey not get washed away in the Medusa-filled tidal wave, but she also helps bring Blackie closer to being a fully realized Williams heroine. As the servants, Curtis Billings and Elisa Bocanegra take full advantage of the opportunities they get to insinuate themselves into the action.
While we can only speculate on what the varied and numerous changes that Williams continued to put into “Milk Train” until his death, we can thank whatever savior you like to have this version to intrigue and entertain us.
The script from the first Broadway production in 1963, which starred Hermione Baddeley, was evidently rewritten for a version that was produced the following year on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead. A drastically revised film version, “Boom,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, presumably did not please Williams, the press, or the public. There was, however, a well-received revival Off Broadway in 1986 starring Elizabeth Ashley, Marian Seldes, and Amanda Plummer. ***
“The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” through Sunday, April 3, Roundabout at Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46 Street. $71 to $81. 212-719-1300.