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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Laura Pels Theatre


  Olympia Dukakis and Darren Pettie/ Ph: Joan Marcus

If you were an actress of a certain age and enormous artistic stature, it’s understandable that The Milk Train, though far from the best of Tennessee Williams’ plays, might exert an irresistible lure. Its protagonist, the fierce, frail, former femme fatale Flora Goforth, is a challenge worthy of a champion. The problem is that the rest of the play doesn’t offer a setting worthy to show off such a gem.

It’s hard to believe that anything as mundane as a milk train ever stopped at the remote Mediterranean hilltop home of Flora (Olympia Dukakis), where intercoms infiltrate every room so that the aged diva can dictate her memoirs. A spectacular showgirl turned socialite who made good (or at least did well) by surviving four husbands, Flora herself is now dying, though she’s far from willing to acknowledge that fact and keeps insisting to her put-upon secretary Blackie (Maggie Lacey) that her impending deadline is from her publisher, not from her maker.

The Grim Reaper finally comes calling in the person of poet and mobile sculptor Christopher Flanders (Darren Pettie), who presumes upon an old introduction to ask Flora for an invitation to stay. His handsomeness excites her interest – and a brief flurry of youthful flirtatiousness – but when another acquaintance (played with campy hauteur by Edward Hibbert) reveals that Flanders has a habit of first befriending and then surviving elderly rich women, Flora is furious at the implication that she is just the latest lady on the Angel of Death’s list.

Dukakis is, unsurprisingly, up to the demands of the role, embodying the dying diva’s shrewish temper, slowly eroding self-assurance and underlying terror of mortality – as well as the occasional sparks of what must have been her youthful charm and vivacity. As Flora berates and bullies the repressed Blackie, Dukakis seems to draw energy from the act of abuse, but gradually the audience realizes what Blackie already knows: that all the harpy’s waning energy is spent in distracting herself from her own imminent demise, and all the screaming, seducing and scheming are just ways to deny the terrible truth – however temporarily.

Nor does Dukakis shy away from the loss of dignity that Williams has sternly scripted in, even when it entails appearing in full Kabuki regalia at a dinner party for two, or trying to coerce the reluctant poet into bed. Dukakis manages to make her heroine, however reprehensibly she may behave, real and even sympathetic.

Wiliams’ play is a strange mix of ideas about death, from the brutally literal to the spiritual, but those ideas never fully coalesce, leaving the minor characters to cope with a bewildering range of modes. Understandably, Lacey and Pettie fare less well than Dukakis with their more problematic roles. From crisp and straitlaced to despairing and exhausted, Lacey’s fine, but her delivery of passion lacks conviction. Pettie’s brooding looks suit the part, but he has difficulty balancing the double-edged nature of his character as handsome hanger-on and harbinger of death. Indeed, the impossibility of these roles may be Wiliams’ ultimate tribute to aging actresses – with Flora’s role the only one that’s fully fleshed out, everyone else's paling in comparison – and that’s just the way she’d want it.


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