BWW Review: Hitch a Ride With This MILK TRAIN

BWW Review: Hitch a Ride With This MILK TRAINWhile Tennessee Williams is hailed as one of the greatest American Playwrights, many consider he wrote some of his more unfavorable plays near the end of his career. From the late fifties and sixties onward, Williams's plays did not meet the critical and commercial success as they became less realistic and far more abstract. The first of these plays, THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE, famously flopped on Broadway in 1963, and then once more in a revised form the following year. However, The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans has done Williams canon and New Orleans audiences a tremendous favor by staging the play that was considered the starting point of Williams' decline. Emphasizing the formidable strengths that outweigh its imperfections and inconsistencies, this rarity from Williams is certainly a standout production currently playing at the Sanctuary Cultural Arts Center.

Directed by Augustin Correro, the story takes us away from the American South to the shores of Italy. While streetcars and tin roofs are traded for terraces and pink villas, the familiar roster of characters is still present. The female lead is, of course, the beating heart of the plot and MILK TRAIN'S Flora "Sissy" Goforth can stand toe to toe with the likes of Blanche du Bois and Maggie the Cat, especially when performed by New Orleans theatre icon Janet Shea.

Downing a cocktail combination of coffee and codeine, Sissy is confronted with two looming deadlines: one from her publisher, the other with the grim reaper. Nearing the end of her life, Sissy struggles in dictating her dalliances to her all-suffering assistant Frances "Blackie" Black. Blackie jots down her employer's memories that can be heard all throughout the villa via the loudspeaker system, day and night, depriving Blackie Of much-needed sleep. Their tense daily interaction is interrupted, however, with the appearance of a "Trojan horse guest" in the figure of Christopher Flanders, a man who is part poet, part gigolo, though he will become much more than that to Sissy. On a visit to the villa, Sissy's friend, the Witch of Capri, warns Sissy to stay away from Flanders as he is well-known to playing companion to wealthy old women as they near death. The two become deeply engaged with each other, with their own ulterior motives, as they play a cathartic game of cat and mouse while Sissy's death approaches.

Shea plays the role of Sissy in a powerful way. A standout from Williams's more well-known female characters, Sissy shares Blanche's romanticism of her former life, yet also possesses Amanda's suspicious demeanor. What sets Sissy apart, however, is that while she is a cracked Southern belle, she does not ring quietly. As a conduit of Williams's spirit, Shea unleashes the fury of a very complex character and brings forth the psychological bond of the relationship between Sissy and Williams. Doleful, bitchy, and impenetrable, Shea's performance as Sissy is one of theatre majesty.

Levi Hood serves as her foil in the role of Flanders, a poet with a youthful face that reveals a natural charm and a tender, creative soul. Part savior and part sinner, Hood's performance is palatable as the audience is left wondering if his intentions are good or selfish. Is he an angel of death sent to ease Sissy's suffering? Or is he an artist of a more conniving nature, ready to leap at the chance and steal from her the moment she passes? Perhaps he is both.

Rounding out the rest of the cast is Julie Dietz, Kyle Daigrepont, and Linnea Gregg. While they perform as distinct characters, they also serve as stage hands, who not only influence the setting of MILK TRAIN but also speak directly to the audience in a mimic of a Greek chorus. With a flick of a wrist, Dietz dons a jacket to become Blackie, a young widow, who has become terse under Sissy's employ. Forever at odds, Dietz's portrayal of Blackie is a sympathetic one as she possesses an almost melancholic vulnerability beneath her stiff demeanor.

Daigrepoint as the Witch of Capri is a wonderfully campy change of pace. In a role created for a woman, Daigrepoint enters the scene dressed in drag while evoking the aura of a real Disney villainess (horns and all). The venomous verbal lashings between both Shea and Daigrepoint are some of the highlights of the show. When not serving as a stage hand, Gregg plays the part of Simonetta, a coy and playful Italian maid that adds to the humor of the show.

The framework of the play is heavily inspired by Japanese Noh theatre, though it is only a mere shade of the Eastern art form. That doesn't prevent the TWTC from using that to their advantage, however. Instead of the décor of an Italian residence, Correro's scenic design treats us with a series of changing screens, which is a wonderful Japanese aesthetic, and a practical device to create the different playing areas needed in the intimate space. A lack of color is noticeable with the scenery as everything, right down to the props, are painted in nothing more than black and white. Coincidentally, while the color associated with death in America is black, the Japanese associate death with white. This choice serves well in creating a world surrounded by death for the otherwise colorful Sissy. And colorful she is with costume designs by Lee Kyle, which takes her from Kabuki resplendence to delicate nightwear.

Adding to the world is sound design by Nick Shackleford, who has created a musical soundscape that underscores the action and intensity, like the beating of a tell-tale heart. Combined with William Moody's lighting design going from pronounced to dimmer and dimmer still, the audience waits in anticipation for the moment that may be Sissy's last. As always, one of the major strengths of the TWTC is to create an effective world, but using no more than exactly what they need. It can also be forever known that the TWTC revitalizes Williams and turns his flawed works into true masterpieces. Fans of Williams will not be able to resist to hop on the next showing of MILK TRAIN playing now through April 2.

Photo credit: Ride Hamilton

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From This Author Tara Bennett

Tara Bennett Tara Bennett is a Jill-of-All-Trades who currently serves as the head Arts & Entertainment writer for DIG Magazine in Baton Rouge, as well as the (read more...)

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