Milk Train - Last Stop on 10-Year Tennessee Williams Marathon at Hartford Stage

By Amy J. Barry

Michael Wilson directs the 10th performance of a Tennessee Williams play in his 10th year as Hartford Stage’s artistic director—The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. It was a bold decision to stage this play that petered out on Broadway, despite the star power of Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter.

Kudos to Wilson for breathing new life—or the right life—into this interpretation of Williams’s razor sharp, lyrical writing and usual cast of colorful, eccentric characters.

Olympia Dukakis was an excellent choice for the vain, aging wealthy widow, Mrs. (Sissy) Goforth, who is writing her memoirs in a villa on the Amalfi coast. Dukakis seems very much at home in the role of the cantankerous, funny and flamboyant old Southern belle—although her slight blending of her New England inflection and character’s Southern accent was a little distracting.

In a race against death and to meet a publisher’s deadline, Sissy Goforth dictates her tales of four husbands she describes as, “two as ugly as apes; one looked like an ostrich,” before she found her true love in a 25-year-old poet for whom she continues to mourn, after having “put a fast car in his hands.”

She loudly dictates her memoirs over a microphone, to her assistant Mrs. Black, whom she calls Blackie, an unfitting name for the pale young Vassar-educated widow (gracefully played by Maggie Lacey), who must be available to record her boss’s words on paper, day or night.

The physical and personality differences couldn’t be greater between the cool, composed waif-like Blackie in her simple skirts and blouses, increasingly resentful of the larger-than-life Mrs. Goforth with her wild costumes and provocative language.

Enter Chris Flanders (Kevin Anderson), a 42-year-old poet and maker of Calder-esque mobiles, who met Sissy Goforth in her heyday, at a party surrounded by rich friends. He’s hungry and looking for a place to stay and reminding her of her last poet husband, she exiles him to a guesthouse where Blackie makes up his bed in pink satin sheets—another of the drama’s many wonderful contradictions and unexpected juxtapositions.

At this point the play’s mood becomes darker with sinister symbolism and an existential edge.

The peculiar Mrs. Condoni, also known as Connie, and The Witch of Capri, arrives to warn her friend about Chris. Dressed as an alluring witch on the way to a costume ball, Judith Roberts is delightful as the loopier-than-all-get-out Connie, who informs Sissy that Chris has befriended many older woman right before they die, and insists he is the Angel of Death.

Anderson keeps us guessing about the true identity of his mysterious, character, who has rational explanations for everything he does, but clearly seems fixated with caring for needy, lonely women and always arrives at the opportune time.

“One person’s sense of reality is another person’s madness,” he chillingly points out. And then calmly wonders how he got the name (Angel of Death) “that made me so unwelcome this summer.”

Jeff Cowie sets the scene beautifully—rocky coast and a blue horizon (with realistic crashing waves by music and sound designer John Gromada), and a veranda upstage, punctuated by floating beds in wall-less bedrooms that come forward for several scenes and then recede.

David Woolard’s costume design is marvelous, highlighted by Dukakis dressed as a Geisha doing a hysterical impersonation of a Kabuki dancer and quickly changing from her character’s old lady’s shawl into a snazzy pink negligee and garish red wig when she sees Chris approaching.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is funny and touching and makes us think about how we live and leave our lives. It’s well worth a stop at Hartford Stage as it closes out the theater’s decade honoring the works of Tennessee Williams.

Performances of The Milk Train…continue at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street in downtown Hartford through June 15. For tickets call 860-526-5151 or online at hartfordstage.org.

(This review appeared in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers, 6/5/08.)

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