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A CurtainUp Review
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

Is that why you came here? Because you've been tipped off that old Flora Goforth is about to go forth this summer. — Mrs. Goforth
Yes, that's why I came here.—Chris
Well, I've escorted four husbands to the eternal threshold. It's my turn, now, to go forth. But I'll do it alone. Alone. But you, you counted on touching my heart because you heard I was dying, and old dying women are your specialty. But you miscalculated with this one. This milk train doesn't stop here anymore.— Mrs. Goforth
Olympia Dukakis
Olympia Dukakis
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Tennessee Williams produced a large body of work. Though best known as a playwright, his oeuvre included essays and short stories, with the latter often seedlings for plays. His 1962 The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More, now being given another New York life at the Roundabout Company's Laura Pels Theater is a case in point; its seeds being planted during the 1950s in a story entitled "Man Bring This Up the Road!."

There's a consistency to Williams's themes, characters and settings: loneliness and love, . . . always vivid and at times over the top characters, especially his spinsters and widows . . . locales drenched in atmosphere, whether the setting is realistic or exotic. However, that consistency does not apply to all his plays. Case in point: The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More, which marked the end of Williams' landmark work and the beginning of a personal and career downward spiral from which there was unhappily no recovery. The drama's centerpiece is a typically feisty, passionate but lonely Williams woman — Mrs. Goforth, a much married "old swamp-bitch from Georgia" who's on the brink of death. — Given the play's place among Williams' flops prompts a big WHY?

Why bring back a flop that went to an early Broadway death (69 performances) and barely rose from the grave when revived with super diva Tallulah Bankhead on board (Bankhead lasted for just 5 performances). With a number of other minor Williams plays newly appreciated in recent years (Small Craft Warnings, Vieux Carre) that big WHY leads to an understandable WHY NOT for this dreamy, symbol-ridden meditation on death? — especially if two experienced Williams interpreters, Olympia Dukakis and Michael Wilson, are willing to commit themselves to giving it the staging they feel it deserves?

So, is Dukakis the diva to move Mrs. Goforth into the ranks of unforgettable Williams characters? Has director Wilson, who so masterfully wove nine of of Horton Foote's plays into an unforgettable theatrical tapestry (The Orphans Home Cycle), made a visit to the three mountaintop Capri villas an imperative?

For Tennessee Williams' many fans for whom any production of his work, whether major or minor, is a command performance, the answer is a definite yes. Ditto for Olympia Dukakis's many admirers.

Dukakis brings humor as well as pathos to her interpretation of Mrs. Goforth, though theater goers not enamored of her penchant for scenery chewing, should be prepared for large chunks of it here. Wilson has astutely combined the playwright's many revisions to more dynamically transform his stated interpretation of his main character as not so much "a human being but a universal condition of human beings" who somehow experience the "s;ignificant adventure of being alive that we must pass through for a time." His designers, have created an aptly real yet otherworldly set and soundscape to make us feel as trapped in that carefully guarded aerie as Mrs. Goforth's secretary and inside yet outside observer (Maggie Lacey, who made such a strong impression as Elizabeth Robedaux in The Orphans' Home Cycle has a far less meaty bone to chomp on here).

But neither Dukakis or Wilson can elevate this play from its place in the lower echelons of the Williams canon. Contrary to Mrs. Goforth's declaration that the milk train (as represented by her largesse as a patron) can no longer be counted on by "freeloaders" like the aptly named christ-like gigolo, Christopher Flanders (played by Darren Pettie with the just right degree of weary and wary seductiveness), the play named for this symbolically referenced Milk Train can be counted on to to make its stop at the Laura Pels Theater a visually stunning experience. Unfortunately, it still isn't likely to make us care for its characters, especially the dictatorial, self-demeaning and death-denying memoirist at its center.

The play overall remains a too ambiguous hodge podge of symbols and allusions — the fun mostly being in identifying the meanings behind the names and the characters. (for example: put a space after the first two letters of the main character's last name and you have the playwright's personal belief that one must "go forth. " In this instance, that mantra is turned on its head as both Williams and his character are not going forth but headed in the opposite direction.

The first people we see on stage are Mrs. Goforth's young servants (Elisa Bogenegra and Curtis Billings) in a silent embrace. They break apart and the woman playing "Reveille " on a bugle establishes our sense of being in a place where people are sequestered like rebels waiting out a war. Jeff Cowie's villa with its open windows then comes into full view and we meet Flora Goforth, also known as Sissy, dictating her memoirs into the sound system she's installed. Drugs and drink turn the dictated reminiscences about her life in the theater and her four marriages into a rambling mess that's increasingly frustrating for " Blackie" the secretary who serves as counterpoint to the flamboyant beauty-into-demanding monster.

One of the pleasurable twists of this production comes via the arrival of an uninvited friend whose poison-tongue has earned him the name Witch of Capri. Edward Hibbert adds a nice touch to a role usually played by a woman.

Flora's battle to cope with pain and her denial of approaching death is quite powerful. It evolves into a ferocious last-stand seduction to delay destruction with the arrival of Pettie's Christopher, a no longer young but still attractive poet and mobile artist who has earned his nickname, Angel of Death, as a result of visiting dying old ladies. Chris's mobiles are once again symbolic, signals of freedom and flexibility.

Ms. Dukasis handles the lighter scenes with considerable flair, especially when she dons a Kabuki wig and costume (a shout-out is due to costumer David C. Woodard and hair and wig designer Mark Adam Rampmeyer). She's positively terrifying when she exerts her power over the impoverished artist who's climbed the mountain to her home ready to offer companionship in exchange for a chance to rest and get back his recently lost sense of reality by denying him food and commanding him to kiss her before smoking a proffered cigarette.

But ambiguity prevails. Is Flanders an exploiter, a sort of mystic Dr. Kevorkian, genuinely compassionate or a little bit of each? Dukakis's quick physical makeovers are impressive but improbable. Yet, this is a rare chance to see glimmers of the great Tennessee shine through the flaws. Seeing Dukakis zestfully suck every drop out of this juicy role even without transforming it into a truly great one is more than likely to fill the theater's seats for the duration of the run.

The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
Directed by Michael Wilson

Cast: Olympia Dukakis (Flora Goforth), Edward Hibbert ( Witch of Capri), Maggie Lacey ( Frances Black) ,and Darren Pettie (Christopher Flanders) ,Curtis Billings (Giulio), Elisa Bocanegra (Simonetta)
Sets: Jeff Cowie
Costumes: David C. Woolard
Lights: Rui Rita
Original music and sound: John Gromada
Hair & Makeup: Mark Adam Rampmeyer
Dialect Coach: Gillian Lane-Plescia
Stage Manager: Susie Gordon
Running Time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
Roundabout T heatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre 111 West 46th Street (212) 719-1300,
From 1/07/11; opening 1/30/11 ; closing 4/10/11.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 PM with a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2 PM. Ticket prices range from $71-81.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/26/11 press preview
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