Truly a giant of the American stage, Tennessee Williams wrote plays that featured indelible characters, including Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and the lustful Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, all of which are still performed regularly throughout the world.
In 1956, he teamed up with director Elia Kazan to adapt his one-act play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, into Baby Doll, a film that introduced another indelible character of sorts—the image of a young woman, lying in a crib, provocatively dressed in a shorty nightgown and sucking her thumb. With its undisguised depictions of lust and sensuality, Baby Doll sent conservative critics into a tizzy, and it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which managed to have it pulled from many U.S. theaters. Even Time Magazine called it “the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.”
Standards have changed greatly over the past five decades, of course, and the furor that the film caused has been all but forgotten.
What remains is Williams’ story, which still makes for entertaining drama, and Joel Daavid’s new production at the Lillian Theatre certainly bears that out. Set in a small town in Mississippi in the late 1950s, it’s the tale of a middle-aged cotton gin owner, Archie Lee Meighan, and his 19-year-old virgin bride, Baby Doll, who refuses to consummate their marriage until she reaches her 20th birthday.
Archie is too poor to afford to repair his cotton gin, the source of his livelihood, and when the loan company comes to collect the houseful of unpaid-for furniture, Baby Doll makes it clear she will continue to refuse any sexual favors until it is returned. Desperate for money (and Baby Doll), Archie burns down the gin mill of his competitor, Sicilian immigrant Silva Vacarro, in the hopes that the business he lost when Vacarro came to town will be his again. Vacarro catches wind of Archie’s misdeed and comes a-calling, turning on the charm to manipulate Baby Doll into confessing her husband’s guilt. The exotic stranger’s attentions prove too much for her to resist, and she succumbs.
Under Daavid’s insightful direction, Tony Gatto plays Archie with the right amount of foolish bluster and pent-up rage. Jacque Lynn Colton is amusing as Baby Doll’s doddering Aunt Rose Comfort. Ronnie Marmo brings a smooth seductiveness to his portrayal of Vacarro. And Lulu Brud is terrific as Baby Doll, a young woman who is just beginning to realize that she can use her looks to bend men to her will.
Daavid’s evocative set design is attractive and makes good use of the Lillian’s space. Matt Richter’s sound design gives the production a welcome cinematic feel, as does Nick Block’s original score. Noelle Rafferty’s costumes are right for the impoverished milieu, and Adam Haas Hunter has given the supporting cast choreographed movements that afford them a balletic grace.
Perhaps the most pleasurable aspect of the production is that we can really sit back and enjoy WIlliams’ dialogue, much of which is barbed and quite funny. In fact, Baby Doll can be viewed as a steamy Southern drama of the type Williams specialized in—or a parody of the same—and it’s entertaining either way.
Baby Doll plays at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood, California, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., until December 18th. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 960-4420.
Photos by Joel Daavid