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The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

Olympia Dukakis gives a grounded yet juicy performance in Michael Wilson's sharp staging of Tennessee Williams' rarely-performed drama. logo
Darren Pettie and Olympia Dukakis in
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
(© Joan Marcus)
Director Michael Wilson has done the Tennessee Williams canon and New York audiences a tremendous favor by reconsidering a mid-career failure, the 1963 play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, now being presented at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre.

Having prepared the way with an exemplary production at Hartford Stage three years ago, Wilson has now fine-tuned a perfectly worthy, emblematic work and created an imaginative, impassioned staging that sings, thanks in large part to the divinely earthy Olympia Dukakis.

In terms of Williams' by-now familiar roster of character types, the gang's all here, only scrambled a bit. There's Flora "Sissy" Goforth (Dukakis), an aging doyenne obsessed with sustaining the illusion of desirability; a reproving spinster, the young widow Frances "Blackie" Black (Maggie Lacey, who, since the Hartford run, has infused the role with an intriguing undercurrent of sensuality); and Christopher Flanders, an itinerant sinner/saint (played by Darren Pettie, who mixes a touch of mysticism with a trace of rough trade).

Dukakis establishes a fully grounded Goforth from the get-go, never letting us forget for a second that this dame, however well-endowed at this particular point in her life, is far from grande. A self-described "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. Or that, at least, is how she tells the story. We have no good reason to believe a word she utters, self-aggrandizement being the privilege of the inordinately rich.

Goforth has holed up for the summer in her aerie overlooking the Amalfi coast (Jeff Cowie's magnificently vulgar set hovers somewhere between a gilded cage and a sarcophagus), where she dictates her memoirs 24-7, with the frustrated Blackie ever at the ready to transcribe her employer's drugged and/or drunken ramblings.

Their unhappy existence is suddenly disrupted by the sudden arrival of Flanders, a 39-year-old former ski instructor turned poet and artisan (he makes mobiles), who used to be a darling of Goforth's moneyed set, but has of late acquired a morbid taint. As revealed by Sister's trusted crony, the so-called "Witch of Capri" (played here by Edward Hibbert -- rather than by a woman -- as did Noel Coward in the 1968 film version, Boom!) -- the nickname that Flanders now bears is indeed the "Angel of Death." But the ambiguity just amps up from here: Is Flanders 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 -- as death surely approaches. The proceedings are also extremely funny, especially during Goforth's instant makeovers into seduction mode (costumer David C. Woolard repeatedly transforms her from washed-out crone to gaudy vulture), and her wonderfully rude interactions with her entire entourage. It's a juicy role, and Dukakis chomps into it with such gusto that this becomes one Train you won't want to miss.

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