The Meaning In “The Milk Train”
Director Michael Wilson balances symbolism and reality in a Tennessee Williams play
Notice how the mobile affects the light on stage, its small pieces of colored glass throwing red on a table or blue on an actor’s face. No one acknowledges these sparks of color, which makes them feel more poetic—like glimpses of the forces beneath the play.
For director Michael Wilson, the mobile is a crucial part of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, the obscure Tennessee Williams play he’s staging at the Roundabout after mounting a 2008 production at Hartford Stage. It helps him balance the “real world” of the show—about the last days of a wealthy socialite named Flora Goforth (Olympia Dukakis)—with the “poetic world.”
“Our approach has been to make it real, to make it feel like you’re seeing flesh-and-blood characters, but I wanted to make the audience aware of the magical realm,” the director says.
Once you start looking for magic, you notice it everywhere. Flora lives on a remote Italian mountaintop and is guarded by a pack of wild dogs, like a queen trying to barricade herself. She’s friends with a man called The Witch of Capri, who tells her that Chris, a mysterious visiting poet, is actually the Angel of Death, known around Italy for shepherding old women to the grave.
Chris, meanwhile, carries strange books and seems to charm people with a glance or a word. “He’s a shaman-type figure,” Wilson says. “Is he a saint? Is he a con man? Is he both?”
Whatever he is, Chris is not the kind of character you’d find in a kitchen-sink drama.
“Tennessee was always aware of theatre with a capital ‘t,’ and in this play, there’s a playfulness with theatrical elements,” Wilson says. “The storytelling is not just done through the characters and the language alone.”
Wilson’s production often hovers between reality and metaphor. After Chris learns that a friend has died, for instance, he moves downstage while Flora and her assistant stand behind him. The actors form a triangle, with Chris at the peak and the two women at the base. The image only holds for a moment, but it suggests the balance the characters give each other on the mountain. “Or it looks like he’s on the bow of a ship,” Wilson says. “And the whole thing could turn over.”
In another charged scene, Flora tries to impress Chris by dressing in a Geisha costume from her sexier days. She performs a kabuki routine, and on one level, it’s a light-hearted moment of comedy. But on another, it’s a parody of Flora’s lost youth.
So what can we take from these poetic flourishes? There’s no “correct” interpretation, of course, but you could argue that Milk Train is a meditation on having a good death.
Wilson sees that idea in the mobile, which Chris makes and then gives to Flora. “I think Tennessee was writing with that symbol about the difficult but necessary act of creation,” he says. “The only way to beat back the red tape of existence and the terrible things that will come to us in life is to take a creative action. That’s really our only revenge on death.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor