The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is the first product of Tennessee Williams’s tragic decline. Premiered in Spoleto, Italy, in 1962, it has been frequently revised and produced several times, but never so much as a whistle stop on a reputable train route.
It concerns Flora Goforth, a four times married and now again widowed dying old millionairess in her hilltop villa above the Italian sea coast, reachable only by a steep goat path. Nevertheless, a not-so-young poet, Christopher Flanders, makes it up to the villa, exhausted, hungry, and nearly mauled by the Goforth dogs.
Olympia Dukakis and Darren Pettie.>>>
Blackie (Frances Black), who receives him, is Mrs. Goforth’s secretary, an idealistic young widow smarting under Mrs. G.’s tyrannical ways as she takes down the scandalous memoirs from her employer’s dictation, that can be heard in every room and even the two surrounding terraces–even at night, rousing Blackie from her much needed sleep.
Coming for dinner is the elderly American homosexual known as the Witch of Capri (a role originally written for a woman). A bitchy queen, he reveals to Flora that Chris Flanders has been nicknamed the Angel of Death. A marginal poet, maker of unsellable mobiles, and gigolo, he really lives off the rich old ladies whose dying he eases.
<<<Darren Pettie and Olympia Dukakis.
The entire play, however improbable, is written in a naturalistic style, except for moments when the prose manages to subsume poetry. Williams achieved this often during his heyday, not only in plays but also in stories and poems. But as the muse started to abandon him, he concocted ever more outlandish plots and situations, hoping to shock his way into originality.
In Milk Train, none of the characters convinces. What sort of rich crone craving young lovers would sequester herself where gigolos are unavailable? Why, when a likely candidate shows up, does she maltreat him by withholding food and smokes? Can we care much about her going forth, however allegorical her name?
Allegorical, too, is Christopher (i.e. Christ bearer), but who supplies him with the addresses of rich women on their last legs? And is there a steady enough supply? Why would a fellow with even a modest gift for poetry and sculpture (making mobiles) be reduced to the anterooms of necrophilia? Williams has him say, “Some people, most of them, get panicky when they’re not cared for by somebody, but I get panicky when I have no one to care for.” Does that make sense, unless the wretched chap—39 in this version, 34 in some others—is worried about preserving his kept man attributes, which makes him thoroughly unsympathetic.
That leaves Blackie, a young woman about whom we would like to know more than that she lost a beloved young husband. She desperately wants to get away from Mrs. Goforth, but does nothing about it, and stays on, presumably from a compassion that looks more like masochism.
(L-R): Maggie Lacey, Darren Pettie and Olympia Dukakis.>>>
Yet all these sketchy characters are pale shadows of former incarnations. A Chris-like character appears repeatedly starting with Orpheus Descending. The motif of the woman sorrowfully recalling a dead youth begins with A Streetcar Named Desire and recurs as late as Small Craft Warnings. But here, with typical late-play exaggeration, Both Flora and Blackie fall into that category. Yet when Flora recalls her young last husband, the only one she married for love, the writing turns crude.
Thus about Chris: “He has a good ass. I remember the first time I saw Alex. He had a good ass too.”
The poetry comes in very tiny crumbs. So in Flora’s “I’m dying this summer! On the Divina Costiera, under the angry old lion, the sun, under the far-away stars.” So, too, in Christopher’s “The sea is full of white racehorses today."
And that, alas, is about it.
Olympia Dukakis does convey the tough, lower-class origins of Flora Goforth, but where is that bit of socialite elegance she must have acquired? Darren Pettie, as Chris, may pass for an overripe gigolo, but where is the touch of the poet and sculptor? Maggie Lacey does what she can with Blackie, but cannot quite supply all that is missing from the part. Edward Hibbert, who specializes in bitchy aging queens, sails expertly through his forte as the Witch of Capri, first played as a man by Noel Coward in Joseph Losey’s hapless movie version with Liz Taylor and Richerd Burton.
The set, which must comprise several locations, doesn’t quite make it more than two, replying heavily on diaphanous curtains. But Jeff Cowie has gone to great lengths with Flora’s bedroom, a surreal wonder of an enormous hall with square apertures in walls and ceiling, even more holes than already provided by the script.
David C. Woolard’s costumes fit the bill, and John Gromada’s marine soundscape has waves continually crashing—hence the foolish closing line, “Boom,” which became the title of the movie version.
Michael Wilson has directed with his usual savvy, but as vehicles go, this Milk Train is nowhere near the sadly missed Streetcar.
Photos by and courtesy of Joan Marcus.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.