Joel Daavid’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll starts off strikingly as elderly Aunt Rose Comfort enters her nephew’s ramshackle Mississippi cotton gin and frees the play’s ensemble/Greek chorus one by one from the clothesline where they have been hanging for the last twenty minutes as the audience has been entering the Lillian Theatre and taking their seats.
One by one, each of these ragged figures sucks in a gasp of breath before taking his or her place in front of a row of cotton bales and begins to lug them offstage. Other ensemble members, males in workmen’s garb, rise from the floor on which they’ve been lying motionless and execute a ballet (staged by movement choreographer Adam Haas Hunter) which has them whirling and twirling in slow motion as they remove furniture piece by piece from the stage.
And above all this in her crib lies the titular Baby Doll, the sultry, voluptuous child bride of fat, slovenly factory owner Archie Lee Meighan, thumb in mouth, wearing the crotch-length nightgown made famous by movie star Carroll Baker in the 1956 movie which bears its name.
Quite an opening sequence, and one that heralds a production that will be distinguished by its visual imagery. If only Williams’ screenplay-turned-stage play were worthy of all this attention.
Over the course of the next hour and forty minutes, we get to know boorish Archie (Tonny Gatto) and his nymphet bride (Lulu Brud), though why anyone would want to spend time with either of them is anybody’s guess. Pot-bellied Archie married dim bulb Baby Doll two years ago, and has been waiting ever since for her twentieth birthday, for that is when she has promised to surrender her virginity to the corpulent oaf. Said birthday is now only two days away, and Baby Doll is starting to worry that she may in fact have to give up her flower to this porcine brute.
Meanwhile Archie’s younger, hotter Sicilian competitor Silva Vacarro (Ronnie Marmo) sets about getting his revenge on Archie for having burned down Silva’s cotton gin, vengeance that centers around seducing Baby Doll and forcing her to sign an affidavit admitting Archie’s guilt. Not that Archie’s circumstances are any better. Those dancing furniture movers turn out to have been repossessing everything in the house except for Baby Doll’s crib.
Throughout all this, Archie’s Aunt Rose Comfort (Jacque Lynn Colton) dodders and quivers about as Archie takes out his frustrations on her, ordering her hither and thither to the point of the aged lady’s distraction and audience dismay for the poor old creature.
You won’t likely see a more visually stunning 99-seat production any time soon than director-designer Daavid’s Baby Doll. Daavid’s exquisitely lit, finely detailed set meshes to perfection with the Lillian’s brick walls and exposed wood ceiling, rafters already conveniently built in. Assistant director Hunter’s balletic moves, Matt Richter’s mood-setting sound design, Nick Block’s Southern Gothic original score, and Noelle Raffy’s painstakingly “distressed” costumes complete an overall dazzling design package.
Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Brud, Gatto and Marmo, Baby Doll, Archie Lee and Silva remain highly unsympathetic two-dimensional characters, a trio that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to spend even a minute with, let alone one hundred. Only Colton manages to give real, human dimensions to dithering Aunt Rose.
Meanwhile, ensemble members Josh Benton, Marie Burke, Ugonna Mbele, Dave Metz, Chloe Peterson, Bernadette Speakes, Carl Wawrina, and Michael Wilkie appear as assorted characters, sharecroppers, field hands, and (it would seem) ghosts who haunt Archie’s decrepit mansion “Tiger Tail.”
Williams described the forty-five minute one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, on which the film Baby Doll was based, as a “Mississippi Delta comedy,” and I can’t help wondering if he intended Baby Doll, Archie, Silva, and Aunt Rose to be the kind of trailer trash comedic figures the Fountain Theatre brought to such hilarious life earlier this year in the playwright’s A House Not Meant To Stand. Not having seen Baby Doll in its 1956 film incarnation, one which scored four Oscar nominations, I can’t say whether the movie shares the same overheated tone as it does on stage. I can only say that, for this reviewer at least, this tone doesn’t work. In addition, when there’s no one to care about or root for, it’s hard to drum up any interest in this shabby tawdry lot.
Baby Doll is an Elephant Theatre Production in association with Double A Productions. Rebecca Schoenberg is stage manager.
I was hoping to love Baby Doll, as I know that it has been a pet project of Daavid for some time now, and his previous directorial/design project was the smash hit The Miracle Worker. Ultimately, however, I ended up caring considerably more about Annie Sullivan and the Keller brood than I did about Baby Doll’s rag-taggle litter.
November 11, 2011
Photos: Joel Daavid