BWW Reviews: Resplendent Steyn the Highlight of Abrahamse & Meyer's THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE
When THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE was first performed on Broadway, it was reviled. In hindsight, with the backdrop of 1960s America more sharply in focus, this does not seem surprising. In contrast, it seems very much in fashion nowadays for the play to be viewed as a slighted masterpiece, ahead of its time in the way Tennessee Williams embraced of Japanese theatre traditions and a highly perceptive reflection on the human phenomenon that unites us all: death. Upon viewing this production, produced by Artscape in association with Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE emerges rather as a flawed masterpiece, with Williams's vision of a marriage between his traditional lyrical realist style and the conventions of Noh drama being rather more successful on paper. That said, this production of the text makes for an engrossing night at the theatre, all the more so because of a magnificent performance by Jennifer Steyn, who plays the central role of Flora "Sissy" Goforth, a character that - taken on its own terms - ranks right up there with Blanche du Bois and Maggie the Cat.
The narrative of THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE is a straightforward one. Flora "Sissy" Goforth is spending what will be her last summer in her home on the Divina Costiera in Italy. As she dictates her memoirs into a microphone system she has had installed throughout her villa, she becomes increasingly aware of the two deadlines she is facing: one from her publisher and one with her own mortality. She has a retinue of staff members that take care of her needs, most importantly Frances Black, known to her as "Blackie", ever tactful, but unafraid to voice her own concerns about life on the Goforth estate. Things seem to be unravelling quickly for Flora when Chris Flanders arrives on the scene. A poet with one one published volume of poetry, he has developed a reputation - according to Flora's bitchy neighbour, known as the Witch of Capri - for appearing when people of a certain social standing are about to die. The philosophical rhetoric that comes about as a result of his clash of wills with Flora, leads to the catharsis of a lifetime.
The framework though which Williams channels his story is influenced by his experiences with Japanese playwright, Yukio Mishima, a writer of modern Noh plays who took Williams to see several Noh and Kabuki performances during Williams's 1959 visit to Japan. One can see that Williams, in his creation of what he called "an occidental Noh play", was deeply affected by what he saw there and his inclusion of ideas from the Noh tradition is far more than a superficial pasting on of selected dramatic concepts of the form. Yet, it is not a wholly successful experiment. While the play works on many levels, the human drama that is at the centre of the piece overwhelms the Noh framework at times, which is what makes the use of conventions like the stage assistants, which the audiences of 1963 found hard to swallow, seem a little gimmicky 50 years later. The opening moments in which the assistants explain their presence, for instance, seem patronising today, with the closing moments wrapped up in a symbolic revelation that, while clear, lacks the sense of profound revelation that it seeks to evoke.
Whether one feels the Japanese theatrical conventions employed in the play work or not, they do not sink the ship as those early audiences felt it did, and a performance of THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE ultimately depends on the performance of the actress playing Flora. Steyn gives the performance of a lifetime in this role. Her work is rangy, deeply engaged with the inner life of this complex woman, and her transformation into the character is complete. I have seen Steyn deliver some remarkable work on stage, but this is the best I have ever seen from her. She sinks so deeply into the character that she is unrecognisable until the curtain call, when she emerges after a performance in which she has stripped away layer after layer of emotion and laid bare Flora's soul for all to see.
The men are less convincing in their portrayals than Steyn is, but some of this is due to the writing. Meyer wrestles valiantly with the role of Chris Flanders, but the part appears designed to trip up the actor at every turn. While the role is clearly constructed as a foil for Flora, Williams seems more caught up in what the character represents metaphysically rather than distilling those ideas into character. An allegory, after all, has two planes and as a construct, Chris Flanders is only realised completely on one of those levels.