Every now and again there’s an attempt to breathe life into one of Tennessee Williams’ lesser plays, simply because it is a play by Williams, but the problem with most of his “forgotten” works is that they’re so far below the level of his masterworks as to seem the work of a pretender. And The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore comes just short of camp (it would take only being performed with a lack of sincerity—or too much—to blossom into fill-out self-parody). Set on a cliffside villa retreat high above the ocean, its main character is Flora Goforth, an aging dowager (Olympia Dukakis) who has buried four husbands; dictating her scandalous memoirs at all hours to Blackie, a harried assistant (Maggie Lacey). And that’s because, with Flora being riddled with drugs and an unparticularized illness, the memoirs are the task she must complete before she allows herself to receive Death, and the longer the task takes, the more she staves off the inevitable. But on this fine day, wouldn’t you know, trudging up the mountain is a beautiful young man she met at a party several years ago, Darren, an itinerant poet (Christopher Flanders); and it’s shortly revealed that his nickname is “The Angel of Death,” because he has a habit of appearing just in time to ease wealthy old dowagers into Whatever’s Next.
But he’s not a murderer or a con man, just this beautiful boy toy who appears at The Critical Juncture, and to be candid and politically incorrect about it, that’s key to why Milk Train verges so precariously on camp; Williams presents it as a near-surreal drama about mortality, but in fact, it’s a textbook homosexual fantasy: swap out the dowager for an old, gay man who has had many lovers—none permanent—and fears the lonely darkness of death; and Darren becomes the ultimate gay icon: gorgeous, youthful, virile, just self-interested enough to be both aloof and alluring; and above all non-judgmental and unfazed by the ravages of age—on hand only to make the old man’s death a blissful release in his fortress of solitude. (Indeed, Williams came close to acknowledging the play's gay soul—perhaps consciously—in a rewrite; a supporting character, the gossipy Witch of Medusa, who comes to the retreat to give Flora the lowdown on the poet, was a woman in the play’s first incarnation. A year later, he had changed The Witch to a man, and the Witch’s dialogue is pure bitch-queen dish. And not incidentally, he’s played in this production by Edward Hibbert, for whom such roles are a signature.) And I hasten to add—as a token return to PC-ness—the “gay play in disguise” was not an uncommon creation in the era in which Williams wrote, nor uncommon to his generation of homosexual playwrights (Edward Albee is still writing them). The "sub-genre," if you will, came about as a natural consequence of its authors having been, at least to the general public, closeted, and feeling a need to maintain the façade. [Sidebar: among the key reasons why the film version of Milk Train, called Boom, was such a spectacular failure, was the decision to “age down” Flora so she could be played by Elizabeth Taylor and “age up” Darren so he could be played by Richard Burton. This didn’t merely fudge the hidden fantasy, it rendered the story and the character dynamics wholly nonsensical.]
Because the excesses of Flora’s character exist at such a high pitch of exhibitionism, it’s pretty much a Drag Role That Dare Not Speak Its Name, and of course that’s why it was originally cast with iconic divas of ageless grand gesture, like Hermione Baddeley and Tallulah Bankhead—and now, following in their footsteps, Olympia Dukakis. She does what she can in that realm—tosses off the quip with a saucy bob of the head, throws all her body language into sudden outrage, “terps” through an (intentionally) inappropriate dance in a kimono with shameless (and also intentional) incompetence, all that stuff and all those moments that would be high satire in the hands of Charles Busch. But because the play itself is so uneven and at the core so deflective of its true heart, Ms. Dukakis can never ground the performance—as she might if she were playing say, the equally extravagant Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—a much better play by Williams in which “things that are closeted,” including, arguably, homosexuality, is the issue being (eventually) confronted.
The other performances are competent and sturdy, and the whole is presented cleanly under the able direction of Michael Wilson. But as the Monty Python troupe said of Camelot, Flora Goforth’s cliffedge retreat is “a silly place,” and you can pass it up, if you like, without feeling you’re missing a major benchmark in the Williams canon. Unless you’re interested in the point at which the master’s touch began to falter…
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