The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
Love, lust, anger, fear, death, and the search for answers to questions that are unanswerable are all wrapped up in the poetic, under-appreciated Tennessee William's play, "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore."
Set in Italy along the exquisite Amalfi coast, the play's focus is on Mrs. Flora Goforth, a crass, uncouth, ridiculously wealthy widow played by the incomparable Olympia Dukakis.
Goforth is dying and is attempting to write, or dictate, her memoirs at an frenetic pace, to her secretary, Blackie, played by Maggie Lacey, ostensibly due to pressure from her editors, but really she is in a race against time and she knows it.
Into this hilltop villa a man arrives uninvited, named Chris Flanders, played by Kevin Anderson. He tells Mrs. Goforth that she extended an invitation to him years ago, to which she bitingly retorts that "invitations, like passports expire and have to be renewed."
Goforth has a razor-sharp tongue and a raunchy, crude ribald wit, and speaks like a woman who is used to having her own way. Dukakis plays this meaty part as if she were born to it, bringing a poignancy and heartfelt vulnerability which underscores her terror of impending death that she attempts to deny, calling her illness nothing more than neuralgia.
Anderson's Flanders is equal to the challenge of dealing with women like Goforth. She attempts to bully him into kissing her, and he will have none of it. A former ski instructor, published poet, and visual artist, Flanders is flat broke, and seems to be as starved for food as Goforth is for love and attention.
When he offers affection and comfort to the secretary Blackie, Flanders envelops her with affection and peace. Flanders says; "Caring for someone give me a feeling of being cared for." He's found his calling.
Is he a freeloader, an earthly saint, or perhaps as Goforth's friend calls him, "The Angel of Death" - the nickname he has acquired due to his uncanny tendency to arrive just before death?
Goforth's female friend is only called "The Witch of Capri" and she is a wicked one, with a "stiletto tongue." Played with gusto by Judith Roberts, this woman is part of Goforth's social set, another expatriot who has evidently received many transfusions because she says her heart's blood is the blood of anonymous blood donors. Her witches' cap is unnecessary.
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), playwright of such plays as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "A Street Car Named Desire," and "The Glass Menagerie," lived for a while along the Amalfi coast in Italy and spent a good deal of time hobnobbing with the idle rich and famous. His knowing profiles of wealthy elderly women are none-to-flattering but feel accurate.
As the characters attempt to be honest and find connection they are limited by their own habits of self-delusion. Flanders knowingly observes that; "The truth is too delicate," and "No truth in it is true."
Genuinely amusing moments are woven throughout this play, drawn from character, particular from Dukakis' as when Goforth dresses in Japanese costume, complete with wig and Kabuki makeup, and dances with fans. Bawdy fun, but poignantly pitiable also.
Designed by Jeff Cowie the single set is divided by three white curtains, and is mostly all in beiges and whites, a backdrop for Goforth's colorful rainbow outfits, designed by David Woolard. The original music by John Gromada with guitar and flute, flowed in and out like an ocean breeze. The lighting by Rui Rita was appropriately seaside bright.
The ocean wave sound would appear for few moments and then completely disappear, which at first seemed strange – since the ocean is in the background all the time. But it proved to be a good choice by director Michael Wilson; producing a dreamy, hypnotic effect - although the wave sounds were too artificial.
This is the 10th year of the Tennessee Williams Marathon at Hartford Stage, and the last play of the run. Wilson, also in his 10th year as artistic director at HSC, clearly loves to direct Williams' plays and understands them intimately. And, really, what's not to love? Williams assuredly delves into the timeless expressions of heartbreak, longing, sadness, joy, fear, compassion, and love with humor and sensitivity, all wrapped up in glorious prose.
Most of all, Dukakis devours this diva role with an energy and relish that is life affirming. With a flick of her wrist or a flash in her eye Dukakis at once conveys power, grit, determination, and vulnerability. Her masterful performance demands to be seen.