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Theatre Review (LA): Baby Doll by Williams and Kazan at the Lillian Theatre

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The current production of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll at the Lillian theatre is a bold experiment. The challenge was to turn the infamous 1956 film, which had been banned most everywhere for being pornographic, into a viable stage piece. First it should be said that Williams, though the author, had little to do with the film which was directed by Elia Kazan and largely rewritten by him. Whether it was because Williams wanted Marilyn Monroe for the title character or some other reason is unknown but the movie went ahead with Carol Baker, Karl Malden, and Eli Wallach. Kazan went on to win a Golden Globe for direction and the film was nominated for four more Golden Globes as well as four Academy Awards and four Bafta Awards.

What was so controversial in the late ’50s, though not as controversial today, still packs a punch. The story concerns Archie Lee Meighan, a failing, bigoted, middle-aged cotton gin owner who had been married to a childlike 19-year-old virgin, aka Baby Doll. In order to marry her Meighan had to promise her daddy that they wouldn’t consummate the marriage until Baby Doll’s 20th birthday, which, in the play, is the next day. Baby Doll sleeps in a crib, sucks her thumb, and wears a scanty nightie while Meigham looks at her through a peephole.

Meanwhile Archie has cheated a neighbor, the Sicilian Silvo Vacarro, whose more modern cotton gin has taken away Archie’s business, by burning it down. Silva decides to take revenge by seducing and bedding Baby Doll. Archie is deceived and is arrested for burning down Silvo’s gin thanks to an affidavit that Silva managed to get Baby Doll to sign where she implicates Archie as the arsonist.

The play‘s plot still stirs and the audience gets caught up in the action and sexual tension. The production, however, leaves something to be desired. Joel Daavid, who designed as well as directed the show, was frankly better as a designer than as a director. At times the acting got out of control, especially with Archie (Tony Gatto) who just let it all hang out. That is fine for rehearsal but in performance it lacks shape and subtlety. Daavid does better by Baby Doll (Lulu Brud) and Silvo (Ronnie Marmo) who both do creditable and often mesmerizing turns as their characters.

Director Daavid also chose to do some creative nonsense with the rest of the cast. At the beginning we find them hung on a clothesline and when they are released they walk around like zombies, though I think they were supposed to be ghosts. They are released from the clothesline by Aunt Rose (a delightful and scene-stealing Jacque Lynn Colton). While I applaud the experiment I was disappointed in the outcome. Baby Doll will play at the Lillian Theatre until Dec. 18th.

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