With over 30 full length plays and more than double that for one act shows, it is surprising that so few of Tennessee Williams’s works are ever performed. With most of the attention focused on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire – which will receive another revival in a couple of months time at the Almeida – there is often little space for the wider canon. In recent years the ‘rediscovery’ of Summer and Smoke and an impressive production of The Night of the Iguana have awakened an interest in what are considered Williams’s lesser-known major works while the King’s Head Theatre explored identity and desire in some of the shorter pieces under the Southern Belles title, all of which are bringing the writers work to a new audience. Now, Charing Cross Theatre is hoping to do the same for 1962 flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore exploring the exploitation of a dying woman grasping for the meaning of her life and refusing to go quietly.
Williams is particularly interested in the dynamics of age, often placing characters with quite different experiences together to understand the nature and physicality of desire between people who are or should be socially estranged. Often, that relationship is presented as an uneven, almost transactional activity in which the older individual is able to feel attractive and satisfied while the younger enjoys their wealth, sexual experience or some reflection of their wilted fame. Blanche Dubois is the most obvious example, enjoying the bodies of much younger men to fulfill a personal craving for youthful ardour, but there is a similar interaction in Sweet Bird of Youth and in Night of the Iguana, although it is an older man pursuing younger women in the latter. There is venality to these relationships but also vulnerability, and Williams’s skill as a writer has always been in revealing the underlying sadness and illusory (or self-delusional) qualities that people cling to when looking for tenderness from a lover.
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, written later than these works, in 1962, takes a slightly different perspective, presenting a situation to the audience that remains ambiguous throughout. And Williams plays on the expectations that a wider knowledge of his work will engender, as though the writer is already aware of the preconceptions the audience will bring to a, by now, cliched scenario, allowing him to toy with us as we try to uncover the truth behind the sudden arrival of Chris at the mountaintop villa of Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth.
The play takes place across several scenes, divided neatly into two halves, the first in which Chris is glimpsed briefly as his tattered form is rescued from Sissy’s security dogs and given a place to recuperate. Largely offstage for the first hour of the production,therefore, Chris is defined by his present absence, a character much talked about and the driver of the narrative but barely seen until the second half of the play where the expected and longed-for conversation takes place between the young man and the leading lady. A fairly standard device used to generate tension and energy for the eventual confrontation, Williams manages this really well, giving the idea of Chris a tangible impact on these early scenes that builds anticipation as we wait to see what his intentions really are.
But Williams also uses the two concepts of Chris – the idea of him and his real self – to consider how reputation is formed and the, sometimes, substantial gap between external perception and reality. We see this again and again in Williams’s work as individuals crash against the idea of themselves that they project into their own heads and the way they are really seen, often leading to cataclysmic outcomes that capsize their lives. But here Williams is using the same concept to do something else, examining misinformation and the ways in which assumptions are created and sustained without checking the facts for ourselves – a notion that feels especially pertinent to contemporary celebrity whose famed attributes are not always deserved.
And while Williams is building Sissy’s assumptions of Chris, he is also hoodwinking the audience into replicating her mindset, preparing us to foresee the same plot twists as his characters do. Williams does this through the character known as the ‘Witch of Capri’, an old frenemy of Sissy’s who arrives to spread gossip about the young man she terms the ‘Angel of Death’ who talks of the many old, rich women he has attached himself to in the final months of their life with the sole intention of stealing their money. This becomes a salacious piece of gossip between the women but also a dire warning to Sissy to protect herself from the amorality of a young gigolo stalking society and newspapers columns prepared to seduce and dispatch his victims before moving along to the next one.
When the audience and Sissy final meet Chris, Williams immediately muddies the waters however and primed though we are for a rake, what we see is closer to a Christ-like figure who claims to be a kind of palliative care nurse, freely devoting himself to the lonely to help them peacefully on their way. So who is Chris and what are his true intentions? It is this uncertainty that underscores The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore as Williams weighs the scales on both sides, and having fed the audience on Chris’s reputation offers up plenty of questions in the second half of the play. If Chris is using these women, then why does he arrive at the Amalfi coast villa with only a backpack and a single, well-worn outfit, what happened to all the money he must have acquired? And if his form is to seduce, then where is the famous charm and why does he hold back with Sissy?
Against this, Williams looks at mortality and what we chose to leave behind to makes sense of our lives. There are shades of Norma Desmond in the creation of Sissy – who also looks to recapture her vitality with the younger Joe – putting together her masterpiece having all but withdrawn from the real world. Preparing her scattered and verbose memoirs, Sissy is caught up in herself, an idea of her own importance and relevance that leads her to treat her Secretary Ms Black, know as ‘Blackie’, badly and is also dismissive and patronising of her Italian servant. As a result, we don’t immediately and unquestioningly support her, and like Norma, remain open to the reckoning that the playwright has in store.
This Charing Cross Theatre production, directed by Robert Chevara, finds all of these complexities and, unusually, selects an entirely modern setting or at least a boundary -spanning one where smartphones and tablets become the tools of dictation and communication. Generally, Williams’s work can escape its own era and the understanding of human emotion and reaction resonates in any time period, but Chevara could go further in placing the characters in a more contemporary world through the design which is modern but not recognisably twenty-first century. Instead, designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen gives a mixture of periods with 90s minimalist plastic chairs, an early twentieth-century chaise lounge and a 1940s drinks trolley – a mish mash of concepts that reflect Sissy’s long life and acquirement of things but while she is a character who wallows in her past, her social status, location and love of entertaining would imply a responsiveness to trends, not least to reinforce her own taste and relevance to others.
Linda Marlowe’s Sissy finds some of the character’s angles, her petulance and self-absorption that make her irritable with her staff and equally certain that she would be a target for Chris. Marlowe plays the diva well with plenty of bombast and outrage at the incompetence of others, but across almost two hours of performance, Sissy needs more nuance. Partly that is finding a more convincing frailty that overcomes her as the end draws near but also a vulnerability in a woman who is alone but craving notice and company that will make her feel desirable as well as the contradictory fear of that intimacy that works across Sissy’s character – she wants the possibility of something with Chris but is also nervous about giving any of her power and self-possession away. There is clearly more to Sissy than the surface bravado and as death starts to haunt her, her fear of the unknown should make her tremble a little. Marlowe could dig deeper.
Where the really interesting interaction happens is between Lucie Shorthouse’s Blackie and Chris played by Sanee Raval. There is a compelling chemistry there that forms a genuine connection between these characters of equivalent age, which Williams leaves tantalisingly unresolved. But Shorthouse and Raval understand well the ambiguity that the writer builds into this play and use their scenes together to present an alternative perspective on them both – notably the berobed Chris holding his arms wide in a Christ-like supplication, palms turned outwards. The costume designer needs to give Shorthouse more comfortable shoes which seem to visibly pain her throughout, but this is a connection you wish Williams had written more about.
Similarly, Karen Kestelman’s Witch of Capri is a woman we would like to see more of, providing as she does a direct counterpart to Sissy, an older woman with economic freedom and a penchant for younger lovers that mark her as a direct contemporary of Sissy but also an alternative perspective. Kestleman does some good work in providing a few catty exchanges with Sissy, pleased to be the one bringing her useful news about Chris but keen to see her friend fall at the same time but Williams gives her too little stage time to develop.
There is a lot of potential in this play and while it is by no means Williams at his best, the way he draws the audience into certain expectations is extremely skilled, especially as he doesn’t actually dash them only leaves a more open interpretation of character motive. The themes about assumptions, what we leave behind as well as the people prepared to care for us when all the trappings of youth, beauty and influence have gone retain their powerful meaning. This production does’t quite get everything it can from this play, but this is a rare opportunity to see it nonetheless.