A just-right darkly comedic tone and pitch-perfect performances turn minor Tennessee Williams into major summer entertainment as the Fountain Theater gives West Coast audiences their first taste of Pierre Laville and Emily Mann’s streamlined, Williams-estate-approved adaptation of the 1956 movie potboiler Baby Doll.
Crude, cranky, slobbish cotton gin factory owner Archie Lee Meighan (John Prosky) may have thought he’d hit the jackpot two years back in wedding the then eighteen-year-old Baby Doll McCorkle (Lindsay LaVanchy).
Bedding his child bride has proven more problematic, however, the groom having agreed to leave the blonde nymphet chaste until a twentieth birthday now (fortunately for him and less fortuitously for her) just around the corner.
Giving Archie tough competition on both business and personal fronts is hunky Sicilian competitor Silva Vacarro (Daniel Bess), bound and determined to get revenge on the older man for having burned down his rival’s cotton gin, vengeance that centers around seducing Baby Doll and forcing her to sign an affidavit affirming her husband’s guilt.
Not that Archie’s circumstances are any better, furniture movers having only just today repossessed everything in the house but Baby Doll’s crib, a particularly confusing turn of events for Aunt Rose Comfort (Karen Kondazian), the unwanted house guest already sufficiently frazzled by Archie’s constant ordering about to not need more mental harrassment.
Fortunately at the Fountain, director Simon Levy and his stellar cast turn overheated melodrama into deliciously dark comedy while at the same time making certain that characters never become caricatures.
It helps that adapters Laville and Mann have trimmed Baby Doll down to its bare essentials. (Williams’ own 1970s stage adaptation Tiger Tail featured twelve actors as compared to this Baby Doll’s four, not counting George Roland’s fine eleventh-hour cameo as the local sheriff).
Admittedly, Baby Doll is no Glass Menagerie, no Streetcar Named Desire, no Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Indeed, even at a brisk ninety minutes, the one-act can come across an overly extended rewrite of the forty-five minute 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton on which it is based.
Still, with Prosky doing some of his most memorable work as the orneriest of white trash spouses (a role he invests with enough poignancy to counter the character’s coarser crags), Bess once again proving that movie star handsomeness and a to-die-for physique do not preclude bona fide acting chops, and the divine Kondazian making Aunt Rose as huggable as she is pitiable, the world surrounding Baby Doll is a rich one indeed.
Above all there is Missouri-born-and-bred, UCLA-educated, stardom-bound honey-blonde beauty LaVanchy, transforming a character who in less gifted hands could be no more than a dim-bulb Southern Lolita into the play’s heart and soul and moral core.
Scenic design master Jeff McLaughlin once again outdoes himself in creating the most ramshackle of shacks for Archie and Baby Doll to call home, dressed to white-trashy perfection by properties designer Terri Roberts and lit by Ken Booth with dramatic pizzazz matched by sound designer Peter Bayne’s Delta-bluesy underscoring.
Kudo too to costume designer Terri A. Lewis, dialect coach Tyler Seiple, and fight director Mike Mahaffey for getting their ends of the bargain absolutely right.
Baby Doll is produced by Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor. James Bennett is associate producer and Lillian and Varnum Paul and Dick and Jerry Motika are executive producers. Emily Lehrer is production stage manager and Scott Tuomey is technical director.
With a half-dozen or so of his plays in seemingly perpetual rotating rep, it’s easy to forget that Tennessee Williams penned well over two dozen major stage works (not counting movie scripts both original and adapted) in his lifetime. Baby Doll may never join its more illustrious companions as a revival favorite, but at the Fountain, it is as Baby Doll-icous as “ninety minutes, no intermission” can get.
The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles.
July 29, 2106
Photos: Ed Krieger