Degeneracy below the Mason-Dixon line was a subject close to Tennessee Williams’ heart. And in no other work of his is Southern white culture more completely on the skids as it is in Baby Doll.
Written as a screenplay (for Elia Kazan’s 1956 movie), Baby Doll transports its audience to the ruined Mississippi cotton farm run by a drunkard, Archie Lee Meighan.
“Baby Doll” (played by Kate Cheel) is Archie’s young wife in name only. The marriage is yet to be consummated. Archie (Jamie Oxenbould), decades her senior, has promised to keep his clammy hands off her until she turns 20.
The play opens with that day fast approaching.
Archie’s agitation is considerable and made worse by the racket coming from the busy cotton gins of the neighbouring farm owned by a wealthy syndicate and managed by the handsome Silva Vacarro (Socratis Otto).
One night, after yet another rebuff from his Baby Doll, Archie sets out to burn his rival out of business.
Kazan’s movie is a sumptuously lurid piece, one populated by, as New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther acidly noted on its release, “people … virtually without character, content or consequence. Three of its four main people are morons or close to being same, and its fourth is a scheming opportunist who takes advantage of the others’ lack of brains.”
I think it would be fair to say that this tightly focused stage adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann doesn’t uncover much in the way of previously hidden depths.
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Tonally, it’s largely faithful to Williams’ original and director Shaun Rennie’s cast acquit themselves well in roles indelibly associated with their movie forbears Karl Malden (Archie), Eli Wallach (who made his film debut as Silva), Mildred Dunnock as Aunt Rose Comfort, and Carroll Baker as Baby Doll.
Otto brings brooding charisma to the picture as the contrastingly vigorous but manipulative Silva. Oxenbould brings his natural comic touch to the otherwise repellent Archie. At times, he makes him almost droll.
“I don’t want to be in the same room with a man that would make me live in a house with no furniture… My daddy would turn over in his grave if he knew,” Baby Doll chides.
“If your daddy turned in his grave as often as you say he’d turn in his grave, that old man would plough up the graveyard,” Archie replies.
The audience can’t help but laugh with him.
Anna Tregloan’s set (shared with the Ensemble’s production of Fully Committed) is effective with the dilapidated porch of the Meighan place taking on the look of an elevated chicken coop, which Archie and Silva approach like a pair of hungry foxes.
Maggie Dence is just about perfect as Aunt Rose Comfort, Baby Doll’s ancient, chocolate candy-loving relative, and Cheel plays the infantile aspect of Baby Doll’s character with enough wit to suggest it’s a defence mechanism against predatory men and not the end result of generations of moral turpitude.
That said, she’s an instant sucker for the gentle strokes of Vacarro’s quivering horsewhip, which turns their encounter into something of a Mills & Boon affair.
Rennie writes in his program note: “Together we’ve interrogated the complex and nuanced conversation surrounding Affirmative Consent, the many roles women are forced to ‘perform’ in order to manoeuvre their way through an unbalanced system where the male gaze is omnipresent.”
Which is good to hear, but however you frame it, a played-straight Baby Doll will always be problematic in terms of its representation of female desire and agency.
When the movie was released, Time Magazine labelled it “… possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited …” Half a century later, its sweaty carnality appears almost camp.
This respectful stage version can’t really offer anything quite that appealing.