Tennessee Williams' scripts aren't easy on actors. That is particularly true for his 1963 play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, recently presented by The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans at Sanctuary Cultural Arts Center. Tallulah Bankhead, the stage icon for whom Williams allegedly created the role, struggled to master the lines in the Broadway production, which closed after five performances.
Fortunately, Janet Shea, star-ring as Flora "Sissy" Goforth in the New Orleans production, aced the enigmatic role of the former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl and four-time widow. Her performance was a tour de force, shifting from narcissistic delusion in Act 1 to a graceful acceptance of mortality in Act 2.
Sequestered in an Italian villa, Goforth dictates her memoir for a New York publisher while subsisting on nothing but pills and blood transfusions as she battles the final stages of a terminal disease. Most of Milk Train's script is a rambling soliloquy reminiscing about her career and lovers. In her mountain retreat, Goforth eschews "writers that don't write and painters that don't paint," fearing they might steal her wealth. Despite the rugged ascent, Christopher Flanders (Levi Hood), a beatnik poet and mobile sculptor, follows a goat path to her door. Flanders is notorious for befriending dowagers, earning him the moniker Angel of Death. It is unclear whether Flanders is an angel, a gigolo or a Jack Kevorkian-type who assists lonely women in making peace with death. Hood cleverly avoids stereotypes, and Flanders slowly gains Goforth's confidence.
Goforth is drawn in by the seductions of the "Trojan house guest." She sashays around in a kimono and puts on a jet-black wig to coquettishly imitate a geisha. In these flirtatious moments, Goforth is transformed from an elderly woman into the darling showgirl she once was, explaining, "I need a lover more than all the pills and shots." Before long, the entire household relaxes with Flanders' presence.
Blackie (Julie Dietz), a Vassar College graduate hired as Goforth's secretary, doggedly tries to keep up with her boss' insomniac dictation. Kyle Daigrepont plays both butler and the Witch of Capri, who ferrets out Flanders' morbid background. Linnea Gregg plays a lovely, flirtatious Italian maid who is seemingly the only normal resident.
Film director Elia Kazan once said of Williams, "Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life." Williams' lover Frank Merlo died the same year Williams wrote Milk Train, when the playwright was grappling with loss, alcohol addiction and the fear his best days were behind him. In many ways, he was Goforth.
Many of Williams' leading women, including Amanda in The Glass Menagerie and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, were modeled after his dysfunctional mother. Vulnerable, flawed, fading beauties, they grasp at memories of their glamorous pasts.
Above it all hangs the mobile Flanders made — gently twisting in the slightest, evanescent breeze.