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The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Olympia Dukakis with Darren Pettie
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Even when playing a rapidly fading Southern belle amid surroundings of uncertain corporeality, Olympia Dukakis is never in danger of dissolving. The iron-clawed tenacity the actress brings to the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, which just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre under Michael Wilson's direction, is such that you can't accept her character—named Flora Goforth—as anything but a historical, and increasingly hysterical, fact.

Such focused solidity is exactly what this always-fascinating, yet permanently frustrating, Tennessee Williams play needs most. It premiered on Broadway in 1963 and ran two months; a revival a year later (starring Tallulah Bankhead, Marian Seldes, and Ruth Ford) eked out five performances. Williams kept revising it for years, and it's easy to understand both why he bothered and why he never found the play's ideal expression or form: Chronicling the last few days in Flora's life, it melds the effervescence of dream-play fantasy (a la The Glass Menagerie) with the no-holds-barred reality of Williams' harshest successes (A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) but settles on no unifying language.

The problem isn't that you can't tell whether the play is supposed to be realistic or allegorical—it's that the play itself doesn't seem to know for sure. (For this production, which originated at Hartford Stage in 2008, Wilson is using a script cobbled together from several versions.) But whether The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore is the greatest of Williams's lesser plays or the least of his greatest plays, it works satisfactorily when a secure Flora fuses the individual pieces. At that, Dukakis excels, shimmering as not just the woman desperate to hang onto life but also the one who's also terrified of letting go.

In barking orders or fragments of memory at her secretary, Blackie (Maggie Lacey), who's on hand to help her complete her memoirs, or vamping the hunky stranger, Christopher Flanders (Darren Pettie), who somehow wanders into her secluded villa on Italy's Divina Costiera, Dukakis's Flora seizes every moment to underscore the notion that life and death may not be so different after all. When she appears dressed in a kabuki costume for an impromptu fan dance or a youthening red wig and figure-hugging dress (the suave costumes are by David C. Woolard), you may wonder whether she's already loosened her grip on sanity. But Dukakis always convinces you that Flora understands exactly what she's doing, and what price she may have to pay as a result.

That confidence, which is cracked by fear only when her campy friend, the Witch of Capri (Edward Hibbert), informs her of Christopher's not-unearned nickname, Angel of Death, is the centerpiece of Dukakis's portrayal, and what stabilizes both it and Wilson's production. This unsteady woman, who's fired full housing staffs and forsakes morals and kindness because she's too rich to need them, draws from her name utter belief that one must never move backward. Manipulating Christopher, Blackie, or her two servants (Curtis Billings and Elisa Bocanegra) into accommodating her pointed whims are means to an end—her end, and likely not from the neuralgia she insists afflicts her—and a justified method for maintaining the control until the very second she sucks in her final breath.

Dukakis, sturdy of stature and uncompromising of voice, is an ideal embodiment of this aesthetic. Even the terror that emerges with Christopher's ambiguous nature is of the variety that must linger within Flora's grasp for as long as she can stand to curl her fingers. Yet burning behind her gauzy eyes is the realization that the existence she's escaping is no longer the one she expects, or that will bend to her command. It's one in which previously anchored landmarks now vanish behind curtains as the light shifts, and her bedroom is akin to a throne room, where she calls the shots until the moment the shots call her—she's fighting a losing battle to keep everything sensible. Jeff Cowie's set, an amorphous locale blending flapping, theatrical, and scrim-like drapes of mysterious origin with Italian opulence, and masterfully lit by Rui Rita in full-on fantasy mode, bolsters Flora's perception of a world gradually untethering.

The avatar of that disappearing everyday here is Blackie, for whom Lacey gives the production's only unsatisfying performance. Straitlaced and straight-backed, she reads as a progressive woman of spine-deep impatience, who's looking more for new opportunities than to take full advantage of the world around her. But that leaves Flora without the support she needs, and makes nonsense of Blackie's evolving relationship with Christopher. Because Pettie's brooding mysteriousness and Hibbert's flamboyance as the Witch (written as a female, but occasionally played by a man, as also in the case of Noel Coward in the 1968 film adaptation, Boom!) strike the right ominous, bookending notes, a stronger personality to contrast with Flora's is what's needed most—and Lacey does not provide it.

Wilson, however, has encouraged a colorful and thoughtful rendering that brings out the most of what else may be derived from Williams's tidy little mess of a play. Perhaps the larger, more intricate themes that characterize Williams's best stage works are missing here, and preventing The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore from resonating with the power a more full-throated meditation on these subjects might evoke. But with Dukakis so passionate at its center, this troubled look at death in ascendance still pulses with a life that, like Flora herself, is not easily extinguished.

The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
Through April 3
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
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