by Jonathan Warman
I’d only ever read this Tennessee Williams drama before, and I must say it plays even better than I thought it would. Structured with great originality and daring, it shows more of his fire and talent than, say, Summer and Smoke or Night of the Iguana – and also puts his wicked humor on abundant display.
In The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, Flora Goforth (Olympia Dukakis), a wealthy, widowed American socialite, has retreated from the world to write her memoirs. Without warning, handsome and mysterious visitor Christopher Flanders (Darren Pettie) arrives at her picturesque Italian mountaintop villa to keep Flora company. Their relationship plays out over two summer days, as the ocean surf booms below, and as Flora races against time and wrestles with her impending death.
Dukakis happily sinks her teeth into this role packed with red meat. While there are some nuances about the masks that Flora wears that Dukakis misses, she goes right for the jugular, never a bad choice with the always-hot Williams. Pettie does a fine job balancing the mercenary and compassionate sides of Flanders, even if he isn’t quite as much of a sensualist as the role seems to require. Edward Hibbert works a fine edge between camp and brutal honesty as the Witch of Capri, a deliciously bitchy role legendarily played by Noël Coward in Boom the film version of Milk Train.
There’s a strange thing that’s going on with contemporary theatre reviews of Tennessee Williams. Back when Milk Train first opened, critics and commentators were taking to describing Williams plays as “lurid”, “excessive”, “florid” and “overwrought” – all basically code for “too damn queer”. Today’s critics have a tendency to receive those old opinions as factual, taking those epithets at face value and ignoring the venomous strain of homophobia that underlies them.
Thing is, you can find all the words I listed above in recent reviews of this production. Milk Train is, without a doubt, a colorful, eccentric, over-the-top, often intentionally campy play. It is also insightful, highly thought-provoking, sometimes hilarious but more often moving, and occasionally quite beautiful. It is a play to be reckoned with and taken seriously.
If this was a newly discovered 1963 play by an unknown playwright, I have no doubt that people would proclaim it for the visionary if flawed work it is. But because it’s Tennessee Williams, we get all this heinous, hateful bullshit rehashed. And, in honor of his 100th birthday, I say let’s stop it right now.
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For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.