If there’s anything Janet Shea is sure of, it’s her spiritual and geographical connection to the work of Tennessee Williams. “We understand him here,” declares the veteran New Orleans-based performer, who is about to add one of the playwright’s most eccentric heroines to her already Williams-rich résumé.
Shea will play the imperious, doomed Flora Goforth in the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans’s (TWTC) staging of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More, running March 23-April 2 in tandem with the city’s annual literary festival named for the playwright. The Williams wingding will also showcase Southern Rep’s production of Sweet Bird of Youth and an array of literary panels on crime, corruption, and race relations in Louisiana.
Shea’s 61-year acting career (which began at age 17 in an offbeat riff on Aristophanes’ The Birds at the city’s historic Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré) has included portrayals of such Williams icons as Alexandra del Lago, Blanche DuBois, and Amanda Wingfield, as well as more obscure characters in works like The Lady of Larkspur Lotion. But Shea considers Milk Train‘s Flora a unique challenge.
“I’ve just started rehearsing her—she’s almost-but-not-quite obnoxious,” Shea posits in an early March interview at her suburban New Orleans home just a few blocks from the Mississippi River levee. “Flora certainly has an ego—she talks about herself, herself, herself! She plays mind games on the other characters in the play. But at the same time, there’s something likeable about her. She is vulnerable—after all, Williiams indicates this play is about the last two days of her life.”
Shea is one of those actors who never took off to New York or Los Angeles in search of “success,” instead working regionally, staying there, and, by all accounts, making an indelible impact on her community. “I never left,” she says with a smile and a shrug, cradling her fluffy white shih tzu in her arms. By her calculation, she’s logged “more than 200 shows here over the years. Isn’t it fun?”
Shea credits her lifelong theatre obsession to an early influence: Sister Mary Joanna, a teacher at St. Mary’s Dominican High School, who steered her (and other well-known local performers) toward the stage. “I always wanted to act, but kept it kind of a secret,” Shea confides with a laugh, “because both my brothers were M.D.s, and my mother thought it would be great if I became a nurse or a med-tech—not a doctor, though!”
Clearly Shea took the road less traveled with enthusiasm, fashioning the journey on her own terms. And she is fervent in her support of the two-year-old all-Williams-all-the-time theatre company that’s mounting Milk Train, led by co-artistic directors Nick Shackleford and Augustin Correro.
“These boys have such vision!” Shea raved about the TWTC leaders. “They are very creative in their approaches to Williams’s work. They’re likeable, enthusiastic, fearless. And they’re getting more and more support here in New Orleans.”
Correro, who is directing Milk Train, calls Shea “a treasure,” citing her numerous awards and praising her recent performances as the Mother Superior in Sister Act and as columnist Ann Landers in The Lady With All the Answers. He and Shackleford recently announced a third season for TWTC, to include two Williams plays, Camino Real and Not About Nightingales, and the Moisés Kaufman play One Arm, adapted from a Williams short story.
The master’s continuity as an essential New Orleans influence seems assured for the time being, and Shea relishes the focus. “When you think of the culture of New Orleans, you think of food, of music—but nobody thinks of theatre, except for Tennessee Williams,” she ventures. “This is the place to discover Williams. We do it better.”
Jim O’Quinn, American Theatre’s founding editor, now lives in New Orleans.
*An earlier version of this story misidentified one of Tennessee Williams’s plays. The title is Camino Real, not Casino Real.