Well-acted revival of Williams's `Milk Train'

The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore Play by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Kevin Conway. The excellently acted revival of ``The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore'' staged by Kevin Conway is, by all accounts, the least stylized and most realistic version of the Tennessee Williams play. WPA Theatre artistic director Kyle Renick explains in a program note that he received the playwright's permission to return to the first - and more realistic - draft of a work that twice failed on Broadway in the early 1960s.

``The Milk Train'' records the final days of Flora Goforth (Elizabeth Ashley), one-time Follies girl and six times married, as she attempts to dictate her memoirs to Frances Black (Amanda Plummer). The younger widow has taken the job to pay off her late husband's hospital debts. Besides Flora's monstrous self-indulgence, she is also a state-of-the-art eccentric. She has had her villa wired with an elaborate communications system so that she can dictate to ``Blackie'' by day or night.

Flora's Italian hilltop aerie is visited by Christopher Flanders (Stephen McHattie), a personable young drifter and artist/poet in search of the free lodging to which he is accustomed. Williams uses the situation for what was once described as ``a conversation between himself and death.'' Flora dominates the conversation.

Miss Ashley goes at the part with a witty flamboyance to match Flora's hardheaded egomania, waning but voluptuous appetites, and unrelenting acquisitiveness. But she knows that the end is near. The actress rasps, shouts, coughs, and wheezes her way through what amounts to a two-act death scene. It is not Miss Ashley's fault that the exotic survivor becomes something of an old bore before expiring.

Although Flora holds fast until the final moment of surrender, the other characters in this fantastic tragi-comedy aren't mere pushovers. Miss Plummer makes the put-upon Blackie a young woman of intelligent resource and self-possessed dignity, as precise and neat as her well-tailored outfits.

Marian Seldes's Vera Ridgway Condotti is a paragon of well-practiced malice. In this production, Mr. McHattie's Christopher believably denies the ``Angel of Death'' label that has been pinned on him. Something of a mystic, undeniably a freeloader, he is yet not just a hustler with soul.

By seizing on the play's strengths, the WPA ``Milk Train'' more than justifies its brief stop (through Dec. 3) on West 23rd Street. The revival has been brilliantly designed by Edward T. Gianfrancesco (setting), Craig Evans (lighting), and Candice Donnelly (costumes).

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