Milk Train Ends at an Empty Station

By Geary Danihy

The women in Tennessee Williams’ plays – Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois and Maggie, to name perhaps the three most famous – are either haunted by the past or tortured by their own frustrated sensuality. In the case of Flora Goforth (Olympia Dukakis), the main character in Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore it’s both.

The play, written in 1959 and presented by the Hartford Stage as part of its 10-year Williams’ marathon, was not a huge success when it first opened on Broadway in 1963, running for only 69 performances. It was restaged on Broadway the following year with Tallulah Bankhead in the starring role and closed after five performances.

Set beside some of Williams’ more successful plays – The Glass Menagerie, say, or Streetcar Named DesireMilk Train lacks a certain inner tension and latent explosiveness. In the two plays just mentioned, the stakes are high -- people’s very souls are on the line. In the case of Milk Train, although life and death are central, Mrs. Goforth’s situation is much of her own making and whereas there was a certain fragility to the female leads in Glass Menagerie and Streetcar, there’s not a hint of frailty in Flora Goforth, a woman faced with a terminal illness who refuses to “go gently into that good night,” but follows Dylan Thomas’s suggestion to “rage against the dying of the light.”

And rage Flora Goforth does. As played by Dukakis, she rules her island home with an iron hand, making the life of her secretary, Blackie (Maggie Lacey), a living hell as Flora dictates fractured pieces of her memoir, often by broadcasting them over a loud speaker system she has had installed. Rich, spoiled and on death’s doorstep, Mrs. Goforth is still on the make and, with the sudden appearance of Chris Flanders (Kevin Anderson), hope arises for one last fling with the erstwhile, peripatetic poet who has gained the unfortunate nickname of “The Angel of Death” (Is he? Maybe? Maybe not. Williams is a bit too coy here) for having been in the presence of several ancient dowagers as they passed on to their eternal rewards.

There’s a great deal of humor in Milk Train, which Dukakis handles with superb timing and impeccable delivery – you wouldn’t think a line such as “The hut is shut” would evince much laughter, but coming from Dukakis it does. She also does a wonderful take on a kabuki dance that had the audience roaring.

Under Michael Wilson’s direction, Anderson and Dukakis work quite well together, effectively milking an ongoing joke about Flanders not being fed and, in the final moments, creating a touching and, at the same time, chilling deathbed scene. Lacey’s work is less effective, for she plays the prim and proper Blackie with a marked stiffness and limited emotional range and often all but disappears when playing against Dukakis, something that certainly can’t be said about Judith Roberts. Playing the Witch of Capri for all the role is worth, Roberts chews up the scenery with her portrayal of Mrs. Goforth’s rival for Flanders’ affections, rolling her eyes, posturing, posing, arching her eyebrows and flapping her arms as if she is attempting to take flight.

Although there are many fine moments in Milk Train, there’s a certain hollowness at the play’s center that can’t quite be filled by Dukakis’ excellent performance. Mrs. Goforth is an interesting character but she is not one the audience can make a large emotional investment in. Thus, while Dukakis is on stage she commands the audience’s complete attention, but once the final lines are spoken there’s a certain sense that although there has been a lot of sound, fury…and humor, it’s significance has been slight.

Milk Train runs through Sunday, June 15. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org.

To learn what other critics think of this production or to see what’s playing in theaters around Connecticut, go to www.ctcritics.org.

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