Ruff Yeager Talks Tennessee Williams

Ruff Yeager

Ruff Yeager directs the staged reading of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore Monday August 25 at the Encinitas Library

To say that Ruff Yeager is a Tennessee Williams “enthusiast” might be an understatement. As someone who has spent most of his life studying the work of this particular playwright, “authoritative scholar” might be a more appropriate descriptor for the director of Monday evening’s staged reading of Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.

Milk Train is a very rarely seen play from a very important American playwright,” says Ruff of Tennessee Williams, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. “From 1945-1963, Williams had a play on Broadway almost every season – sometimes two. No other American playwright has ever been so produced.”

While Milk Train may be one of his more underperformed plays, the brilliance of Tennessee Williams’ stunning dialogue and hard-hitting thematic resonance is consistent with the plays that more quickly come to mind, such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire.

“At this point in his career [in 1963], Williams had begun to experiment with form in small ways, which was a bit ahead of his time,” says Ruff. “The American theater was still in the conservative, nuclear family, atomic age. It wouldn’t be until the late 60s when the theatre would catch up to the social revolutions that were occurring in the country and the artistic revolutions that had already occurred in Europe.”

Based on a short story that Williams wrote earlier, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore introduces Flora Goforth, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl who has retired to a private Italian island for the remainder of her days, which are waning in number. She is kept company by the Witch of Capri, a gossipy busybody, and her assistant, Blackie. The story takes a turn when Christopher Flanders, also known as the “Angel of Death,” arrives to befriend Flora. Chris is known for his relationships with older women…and for his tendency to be mentioned in their wills after they have died.

Dagmar Fields, recently seen on the Intrepid stage in I Hate Hamlet, will be portraying the juicy, layered role of Flora Goforth and Spencer Smith will take on the role of the mischievous Christopher Flanders. In “true Tennessee Williams motif,” according to Ruff, Ralph Johnson will be portraying the Witch of Capri, a role originally written for a woman, but which has been played throughout history by such famous names as Noël Coward.

Rounding out the cast are Faeren Adams as Blackie and Fred Harlow and Celeste Innocenti as the Ensemble Members.

“He casts two actors as what he calls ‘stage assistants,’” Ruff says, “They come out in a kabuki fashion and announce scenes, scene changes, comment ironically on the action. They guide us through the action unseen by the other characters. We weren’t seeing that kind of thing done here in the States. Williams knew the theatre landscape was changing.”

Aside from being ahead of its time in form, Milk Train also offers audiences a unique glimpse into Williams’ development as a writer. Whereas his previous catalogue dealt with themes of life, love and death in a very metaphorical manner, Milk Train addresses the same ideas with astonishing honesty and realism, especially as the play was written in the aftermath of the death of Frank Merlo, Williams’ longtime partner.

“This play lets us see his characters grow,” says Ruff. “Flora is much more honest and self-knowing than Blanche from Streetcar. She knows what life is about. She’s not self-deluded. As Williams grew older, his female characters really shifted.”

The language of this play reflects that honesty. Not only does it contain Williams’ beautiful poetic qualities, but it is also quite humorous in its realism.

“Williams is looking very hard into the eyes of death and dealing with it very honestly. It’s gallows humor, but there is also the idea of the ‘liberating laugh’ of absurdism – the laughter that allows us to be free for a moment. I think this play provides that moment.” — T.T.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams, a staged reading. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, August 25. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. $15. Rsvp to boxoffice@intrepidshakespeare.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase a reading series subscription.

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