One thing about Tennessee Williams that’s largely indisputable: he chooses titles like no other playwright. Consider the titles A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot, Tin Roof: they’re poems in themselves, dramatic situations filled with longing, sometimes painful and always emotional. So too with his later play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, currently playing at the Laura Pels Theatre. Even before the play begins, there is the sense of something ending, of time lost. And in fact it is. The work is Williams’ two-act contemplation about death, written the year his lover, Frank Merlo, passed away. Williams is known to be a creator of great female characters, and the individual grappling with mortality in this work is unsurprisingly a woman: the wealthy and reclusive Flora Goforth, spending her last days in a lavish villa in Italy. Yet Williams also gives bodily presence to death itself, and – surprisingly or not – that persona comes in the form of a beautiful man, played by Darren Pettie (known most recently as the closeted Lucky Strike heir on Mad Men.)
The play follows two days in the life of Flora who is loath to admit how much disease has brought her to the end of her life. Played vivaciously by Olympia Dukakis, Flora's iron-willed resolve betrays her failing health and her sexual appetite masks the acknowledgment that her life is now behind her. If she sounds like Blanche Duboise aged forty years, she is. Stubbornly delusional as she preys on younger men and throws a well-shaken martini in the face of adversity, Dukasis' Flora is as irresistible to watch as she is presumably exhausting to know. But she’s essentially the only compelling aspect of this production. Her extraordinary performance within an ordinary play reminded me of Geoffrey Rush’s turn in Exit the King, on Broadway in 2009 – another example of a boundlessly talented actor making the most of a finite script. And coincidentally, another play in which the primary source of dramatic tension is an elderly person’s release of life.
Though Milk Train reveals an undeveloped story and frustratingly vague supporting characters, there is something poignant about Flora that sustains the show. So enraptured by the pleasures of life and the yearning desire to taste youth, excitement, and love one more time, she achieves something poetic and bittersweet that is found in the best of Williams’ plays. Dressed in a loud flowery tunic, bright leggings, and wedge sandals, she momentarily views herself as a young woman again as she sees the handsome Pettie coming to visit her. She looks up mischievously, cocks her head, and says, “Ok old girl, let’s give it another whirl.”