Reviving Tennessee Williams’ problematical 1963 play “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” is like bankrolling a political campaign — not something you should attempt with a bunch of amateurs. Happily, the pros are in charge for this slick production, originally helmed for Hartford Stage in 2008 by longtime a.d. and Williams authority Michael Wilson. Casting coup here is Olympia Dukakis, an actress with a tough-but-tender persona and a natural to play the vulgar but extraordinarily vital Flora Goforth as that magnificent monster tries to defy death by living life as hard as she can.
Play’s schematic symbolism — a Christ-like stranger named Chris appears out of nowhere to help the aged and ailing Mrs. Goforth to go forth from this mortal world — was either too heavy-handed or too mystifying for early auds, who refused to turn out for either Hermione Gingold in 1963 or Tallulah Bankhead in 1964. (They also rejected Elizabeth Taylor, who co-starred with Richard Burton in the 1968 film version called “Boom.”)
Dukakis, a generous performer with an affinity for Tennessee Williams’ demanding female characters (including Serafina in “The Rose Tattoo”), is not that kind of diva. Uncowed by the playwright’s assertion that the very rich and very difficult Mrs. Goforth is “not a human being but a universal condition” of all humanity, she plays the abrasive American widow with flesh-and-blood substance and robust, earthy humor.
When discovered in her secluded mountain villa on the Amalfi Coast (which doesn’t look the least bit Mediterranean, in Jeff Cowie’s oddly futuristic set design), Mrs. Goforth is enthusiastically dictating her memoirs and trying hard to shock her disapproving secretary, Blackie (a very prim and prissy Maggie Lacey). But the painkillers that she knocks back with brandy and the effort that it takes her to get into David C. Woolard’s witty outfits (including an elaborate Kabuki costume) are obvious signs that this unrepentant hedonist is coming to the end of her lusty life — and fighting every step of the way.
Mrs. Goforth’s denial of her own mortality becomes more frantic and more pathetic once the burnt-out but still fetching poet who calls himself Christopher Flanders (Darren Pettie, as believable as one could be in an essentially figurative role) appears out of nowhere to give her ideas.
Despite the handsome young man’s reputation as “the Angel of Death” (for his creepy habit of befriending rich old women just before they die), Mrs. Goforth is desperately eager to take him as a lover. For her, as for all of Williams’ Southern heroines who use sex to validate their existence, the act of love is quite literally “the breath of life.” Her need for the charismatic artist even compels her, in one viciously funny scene, to go claw-to-claw with the devious Witch of Capri, a part written for a woman but played with terrific catty-queen humor by Edward Hibbert.
As for the mysterious stranger, he remains ambiguous to the end. If he’s not a cheap hustler, he must be a saint. Or possibly both. Williams himself was of two minds about this sexy guy — a character who shows up throughout his plays as both the life force and the harbinger of death — and Pettie obliges him with a nuanced performance that remains open to interpretation.
As we get deeper into the playwright’s centennial year, we can expect to see a lot more of Tennessee Williams in production. This one gets us off to a flying start.