It seems like an odd choice to revive one of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-known and lesser-loved plays, infamous for its difficult roles and abstract story. But there must be potential for greatness underneath the difficulty, right? Michael Wilson’s production of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, in performances at the Laura Pels Theater, clearly displays the good and the bad in this work, enhanced by the performances of an able, but somewhat miscast, company.
Williams’ play centers around Flora Goforth, played by Olympia Dukakis. A former showgirl living on a secluded Italian island, Flora is determined to write her memoirs before she dies. Struggling with a terminal illness, Flora’s vents her frustration and fear on her secretary Blackie (Maggie Lacey). She has wired her spacious home with a sound system, and speaks into a microphone to dictate her memories whenever the mood strikes – day or night. A recent widow, Blackie is crisply efficient and bordering on brittle, only softened when she meets the mysterious Christopher Flanders (Darren Pettie). Nicknamed “The Angel of Death,” Flanders, a poet and maker of mobiles, is known for appearing at the homes of wealthy women who are about to die. Perceptive and sensitive, he is also a frightening, albeit handsome, man who quickly disrupts the order in Flora’s home.
The role of Flora is known for being difficult and even disastrous for actresses. Both Broadway productions of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore received terrible reviews and closed quickly, and the film adaptation, starring Elizabeth Taylor, did not fare much better. The role exhibits many layers of one woman – a demanding and petulant aging widow, a sensual, seductive showgirl, a cruel and heartless gold-digger and a broken-hearted wife. As Flora, Dukakis fares well in the softer, more sensitive scenes but as her illness progresses and her dignity recedes, her encounters with Chris become more difficult to watch. Her finest moment occurs when she attempts to entertain a dinner guest in kabuki regalia. Dressed in a silk kimono and a black wig, she depicts Flora’s desperate attempt to regain youth and beauty when she knows both are gone forever. The scene is entertaining and amusing, but also extremely sympathetic.
Unfortunately, Dukakis’ performances are not matched by the other members of the cast. Lacey gives a capable performances as Blackie, and her prim, professional attitude is perfect for the character. But her scenes with Flanders, when he probes her broken heart and attempts to seduce her, are less believable. As Flanders, Pettie is not as sympathetic or eerie as the role requires. This is a man of mystery, according to the script, but the mystery is not personified by the man onstage. As Flora’s friend The Witch of Capri, Edward Hibbert appears to be in a different production than the rest of the cast. Fantastically flamboyant, he is much too over the top and campy, playing a caricature instead of a real character. It is difficult to understand why Flora is friends with him at all.
With the wealth of plays by Williams, one wishes Dukakais would find a better one to perform in