01.25.11

Tennessee Williams' Forgotten Masterpiece

A revival of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore proves that even the late Tennessee Williams can be brilliantly produced, says Janice Kaplan—but also reveals why he started to fall apart.

Blanche DuBois will probably have a busy year.

Given that this is the Tennessee Williams centennial, expect to see her wafting across stages all over America, gratefully relying on the kindness of strangers. Numerous theater companies have already announced plans for Tennessee celebrations, and his iconic plays— Streetcar Named Desire, (home of Blanche and Stanley Kowalski), Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie—should get their umpteenth revivals.

Broadway jumps on the Tennessee bandwagon on January 30, with the opening of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. It takes a courageous team—who truly believe in the power of Tennessee—to bring this one back. When Milk Train first stopped in New York in 1963, the critics jeered. Rewritten and revived the following year, the show lasted just five performances, even though it starred Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter. Next, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton gave it a whirl, turning it into a movie called Boom!, which was a legendary flop. After that, the playwright refused to have anything more to do with any revivals.

So here’s the surprise. It’s not a bad play after all.

The director of this revival, Michael Wilson, who probably has a better feel for Tennessee Williams than any other director working right now, went through the many versions of the play—drafts and rewrites that Tennessee had left behind—to craft the current production.

“He defined American theater,” Wilson says. “Younger playwrights hold him as one of their great lights, because what would we be without him?”

“The play was dismissed too quickly,” Wilson says. “It never had the chance to unfold. Tennessee was and still remains a great storyteller who transports you out of an ordinary existence into an elevated sphere. He has so many intoxicatingly sensual details.”

Like many of Williams’ plays, Milk Train explores loneliness and love, with vivid characters, lush language, and a seductive setting.

The heroine—or perhaps harridan—at the center is Flora Goforth (Olympia Dukakis), a former beauty whose sexual wiles lured four husbands. Alone and sick, she is now writing her memoirs from a mountaintop villa on the Italian coast. When a handsome young man named Chris mysteriously appears (Darren Pettie, with abs to die for), she is briefly alive again. She dons a kabuki dressing gown and red wig, wanting to recapture the self and love of earlier years. Even though he has been dubbed “The Angel of Death” because he is often the final companion of rich, dying women, Flora flirts pathetically, desperately pretending that someone still loves her.

“I’ve been very lonely up here this summer,” she tells him.

Chris’ motives are unclear—sensitive poet seeking connection, or conniver seeking money? It almost doesn’t matter, because as Flora stumbles toward death, she needs him. “What would do me more good than pharmaceuticals is a lover,” she admits early on.

Williams wrote the play at a time of great personal grief. His partner of 14 years had just died, and he was beginning to descend into alcohol and drug abuse. “He began to drift and rewrite to whatever influences were around him,” Wilson says. “He was having a creative crisis, and the characters became more and more abstract.”

In a program note to the ’63 production, Williams wrote that Flora is “not a human being but a universal condition of human beings: The apparently incomprehensible but surely somehow significant adventure of being alive that we must pass through for a time.”

A universal condition doesn’t necessarily make a great stage character, and Wilson distilled the narrative and tried to find the essence of the show. He captures Tennessee’s sensuality and sense of place. As the audience enters, the diaphanous curtains onstage are gently blowing in the breezes of the Amalfi coast.

“Tennessee chooses exotic settings so the protagonist is out of a comfort zone and the audience can enter a mysterious, fantastical place,” Wilson says.

Olympia Dukakis has played Tennessee Williams heroines before, and here she is only partly successful, evoking pathos but not necessarily the strength and pride of a woman trying to live every moment to its fullest. While she shines in the scenes with the handsome stranger, she’s not helped by her young secretary (Elisa Bocanegra), who seems petulant rather than wounded and never gives Dukakis the emotional foil she needs. Far more successful is Flora’s best friend—a woman in the original version and now a flamboyantly gay man—brilliantly played by Edward Hibbert.

“With two women, it’s easy for those scenes to descend into cattiness,” Wilson says. “Here it makes sense. He’s her old friend and they used to hang out at bars together and cruise the guys together.” When the friend makes a pass at Chris, another layer of complexity is added to his character—which Tennessee would surely like.

In addition to his longer plays, Tennessee Williams wrote dozens of one-act plays, short stories, and novels. (Many of his plays, including Milk Train, are based on characters that originated in his short stories.) But it’s in theater that his influence remains profound. His plays capture the American soul—with themes of displacement, sexual tension, and the need to find a place among ever-shifting classes. After his tremendous successes through the '50s, his later plays were often ridiculed, and he was attacked for abandoning his touching realism and copying modernist, avant-garde playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Ionesco. Milk Train may have been the pivot point. It also marked the start of his long personal decline. Theater is always a collaborative business and as Tennessee became more distant and difficult, he no longer had directors and stars willing to bring his mottled scripts to life.

A director like Wilson, willing to nurture a play back to life, is just what the later Tennessee needed then and is getting now.

So this is the year to reconsider Tennessee Williams, beyond Blanche, and beyond the biographical details that colored so much criticism of his work. 

“He defined American theater,” Wilson says. “Younger playwrights hold him as one of their great lights, because what would we be without him?”

As Flora says, en avant!

Janice Kaplan is a television producer and former editor-in-chief of Parade magazine. She is the author and co-author of 10 novels, including the bestselling Mine Are Spectacular and The Botox Diaries; her most recent is the mystery A Job To Kill For.