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.
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.