The three or four plays most widely acknowledged as Tennessee Williams’s masterpieces have been revived so often recently that his centennial year is bringing us mainly oddments and curios, though a fair number of unjustly neglected works lie waiting for a first-rate revival. The latest curio to arrive is The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (Roundabout/Laura Pels), an extremely quirky work from the mid-1960s that fizzled in not one but two notoriously troubled Broadway productions before spawning an even more notorious fizzle of a movie (Boom!, 1968).
Eccentric in structure and wayward in tone, Milk Train presents as tough a directorial problem as Williams ever set. Aspiring to metaphysical allegory, it loiters in bittersweet psychological naturalism before diving, frequently, into blunt sexual banter that suggests a lewdly knowing self-parody. Its published text adds two chatty pseudo-Kabuki “Stage Assistants,” whose lines (most of them discreetly snipped from director Michael Wilson’s production) try to push the whole thick impasto into abstraction.
Yet the action’s simple enough. Flora “Sissy” Goforth (Olympia Dukakis), a much-married ex-musical-comedy star, lives in luxurious isolation on a Taormina mountaintop, frantically trying to ward off her imminent death by dictating her memoirs to her beleaguered secretary, Blackie (Maggie Lacey). Enter, on cue, a hunky, no-longer-young artist, Chris Flanders (Darren Pettie), whom Sissy mistakenly assumes will recharge her sexual batteries, but whose real vocation is helping wealthy elderly women meet death. Her viper-tongued pal, the “witch of Capri” (Edward Hibbert), warns her, but Sissy laughs off the warnings, confronts Chris, and duly dies.
A weird, febrile mixture of Little Me and Night Must Fall with some ancient Totentanz, Milk Train never rests in one shape long enough to jell. Still, it holds Williams’s sensibility: Gleaming darts of poetic incisiveness zip through its muddled haze, and even when muddled, Williams never wrote a line a skilled actor couldn’t seize. Dukakis, having a field day, seizes many on her road from low bawdry to high terror; Lacey, emitting gentle curls of resentment as her harried stooge, is nearly as good; Hibbert, this century’s Mildred Dunnock, hits his character’s predictable notes with efficient flair. Only the usually excellent Pettie, stuck with a role that seems to face two ways at once, persistently pulls it in one direction only, perhaps the result of Wilson’s earthbound direction. Yet who’d blame them? Without its fleshy earthiness, this play of lofty aspirations would barely exist.