NEW YORK — If last year was the year of Stephen Sondheim, then this year may be tagged the year of Tennessee Williams. Approaching the centennial of his birth (he was born March 26, 1911), the famous American playwright is being represented in several new productions in New York City.
One of the first productions, and what may prove to be one of the best, is The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, currently being presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at off-Broadway’s Laura Pels Theatre.
Leading the stellar revival is Olympia Dukakis, an Oscar winner for Moonstruck and frequenter of local stages. She plays Flora Goforth, an aging southern dame living her final years on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. She’s the queen of her seaside estate, lounging around in one crazy get-up after another.
We first meet Flora sitting in her bed, getting ready to dictate her memoirs to her reluctant assistant, Blackie (Maggie Lacey). Almost immediately we realize that Flora is not leaving this life without throwing a few punches; her dictation is speedy, angry and confusing. In some ways, she’s the typical Williams main character: a southern belle struggling with issues of mortality and image.
But to quantify Flora as the same-old creation would be wrong, at least the way Dukakis plays her. This Flora clings to her past so she doesn’t face the finality of her future. Although it’s never stated, it appears Flora is dying of some type of consumption. Her coughs become more frequent in the more than two hours we spend with her.
What disrupts the proceedings is when Christopher Flanders (Darren Pettie) barges his way into Flora’s life. At first, he seems like a freeloader, a handsome man who conveniently finds his way to the estate of a wealthy, and dying, woman. But soon Flanders proves too mysterious for his own good. He enlivens the characters around him, from Blackie to Flora to Edward Hibbert’s portrayal of the witch from Capri.
Who exactly is this Christopher Flanders? Why is here? He seems to be the “Angel of Death,” a man who clings to aging heiresses in order to receive their fortunes. But is that why he has come to visit Flora?
Michael Wilson, who recently directed the exquisite and unforgettable nine-part Orphans’ Home Cycle by Horton Foote, keeps most of the questions firmly in place, even after the final blackout. By doing so, and letting Williams’ words hang heavy in the air, the piece is able to finely focus around Dukakis’ brilliant acting.
Her looks of passion are spot-on, and her elegant traipsing around Jeff Cowie’s slight, but effective, sets are perfectly matched. Her Georgia accent is a similar accent that can be found in the movie Steel Magnolias. It’s southern, but unique.
Perhaps the only fault of this production is that it’s tough to imagine it working as well as it does without Dukakis, a theatrical gem, at its center.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Michael Wilson
Starring Olympia Dukakis, Edward Hibbert, Darren Pettie and Maggie Lacey
Playing at the Laura Pels Theatre housed at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre at 111 W. 46th St. in New York City
Running time: two hours, 20 minutes