Kevin Anderson and Olympia Dukakis in
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Kevin Anderson and Olympia Dukakis in
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
(© T. Charles Erickson)
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, a poorly received midlife foray by Tennessee Williams, is populated by a convocation of by-now familiar character Williams' types: a vain harpy desperate to sustain the illusion of desirability, a reproving spinster (or, in this case, a young widow who might as well be one), an itinerant sinner/saint. The show fizzled twice on Broadway (the second attempt despite a star roster headed by Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter, of all people), but it might not have -- had Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson been at the helm. His imaginative, fully fleshed-out staging makes this debate between death and the life force sing, thanks in large part to his choice of diva: the divinely earthy Olympia Dukakis.

Dukakis never lets us forget for a second that Flora "Sissy" Goforth (whose last name echoes Williams's personal motto, "En avant!") is a far from grande dame. Self-described as a "Georgia swamp bitch," she married her way through two rich "apes" and an "ostrich" before finding a love match in a 25-year-old poet, to whom her generosity proved fatal, her unstinting tenderness his final tribute. Or that, at least, is how she tells the story, though we have no good reason to believe a word she utters - unbridled self-aggrandizement being the privilege of the inordinately rich.

At this late point in her life, she's holed up in an aerie overlooking the Amalfi coast (Jeff Cowie's set has you practically smelling the sea air), dictating her memoirs - she has had the whole estate wired for microphones - to an overburdened secretary, the newly widowed and presumably impecunious Frances Black (a nicely restrained Maggie Lacey), who is understandably chafing at being on call 24/7 to capture Goforth's drugged and/or drunken ramblings in the service of a dubious deadline. After all, are there really two publishers, American and British, clamoring for the output and already touting a new Proust?

The play at first appears grim, until Willliams drops a wild card into the mix: Chris Flanders (Kevin Anderson), a 42-year-old poet/philosopher/artisan who used to be a darling of Goforth's moneyed crowd but has of late acquired a morbid taint. Even before yet another multiply married arriviste, the fantastical "Witch of Capri" (a marvelous Judith Roberts, alternately loopy and incisive), descends to fill Sissy in on his particulars and the nickname he now bears like a leper's bell, Williams's own intent for Flanders is clear: he is indeed the "Angel of Death."

But the ambiguity just amps up from here: Is Flanders some kind of mystico-phony or the real thing? A venal moocher or a boddhisatva of compassion? It's fascinating, and ultimately unbelievably touching, to watch the old bawd try to negotiate her needs, -- or what she thinks she needs. The proceedings are also, improbably, extremely funny - especially Sissy's instant makeovers into seduction mode (costumer David Woolard repeatedly transforms her from washed-out crone to gaudy vulture), and her wonderfully rude interactions with her entire entourage. Sissy is a juicy role, and Dukakis chomps into it with gusto -- making this Milk Train a definitely worthwhile stop on one's theatrical itinerary.