BWW Review: Sizzling West Coast Premiere of Authorized Tennessee Williams' BABY DOLL at the Fountain
I cannot think of a better way to spend a hot summer night than to watch a sizzling stage production of a Tennessee Williams film. Baby Doll, when it first arrived in 1956, was condemned by the Catholic Church for indecency, and because of its lewd poster-sized ad depicting Carroll Baker lying in a crib, sucking her thumb, was one of the most controversial films across America. Now, 60 years later, the West Coast premiere stage adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann of Williams' Baby Doll is a practically flawless production at the Fountain Theatre, directed with stunning clarity by Simon Levy...and boasting an unforgettably ingenious cast of five.
For those unfamiliar with the story, first came the one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, then the film Baby Doll. It takes place in the Mississippi Delta in 1952 where two rival cotton gin owners Archie Lee Meighan (John Prosky) and Silva Vacarro (Daniel Bess) 'use' the good neighbor policy when Vacarro's gin mill is burned to the ground. Meighan's business had been booming before Vacarro came to town, and Archie is accused of arson. Baby Doll (Lindsay LaVanchy), Archie's 19 year-old childlike bride, is seduced by Vacarro in an attempt to have her sign an affidavit admitting Archie's guilt. Because of her immature and confused mental state, she gives in and allows Vacarro to sleep in her crib-like bed to take a nap. In the play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Vacarro rapes Baby Doll, known as Flora, but in the stage adaptation of Baby Doll, she remains untouched, unharmed. In fact, her whole association with Vacarro makes her wise up and push to leave the cruel, brutish enslavement by Meighan in favor of real affection from Vacarro. There is the old Aunt Rose Comfort, the sister of Baby Doll's deceased father (Karen Kondazian) who lives in the dilapidated house as well. Suffering from some form of dementia or extreme disillusionment, she hardly cooks or keeps up the place, but visits old friends in hospitals and steals the candy left for them as gifts. Not unlike Blanche DuBois in Streetcar, Aunt Rose has no place to go, but to "rely on the kindness of strangers". In his harsh treatment of her and his lascivious attempts to bed the unready Baby Doll, Archie Meighan also reminds one of Stanley Kowalski of Streetcar.
Williams truly loved his women characters, giving them an edge over the men with their excessive innate strength and fierce sense of survival, in spite of their flaws. Baby Doll and Aunt Rose are alone at play's end. "Will they be remembered or forgotten?" We may assume, regardless of Vacarro's reappearance, that they will survive, as do Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, even Laura in Menagerie, Blanche DuBois or Miss Alma of Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale, a Reverend's religious daughter, who lives out her final days as a prostitute. The lust that seethes underneath in Williams' females is one of their most appealing attributes and one that glues us to a Williams play. But with Williams, it's more than just sex. Sex becomes passion, passion power, and a whole new spirit is given birth. In Baby Doll, the seduction scene between Baby and Vacarro on the swing and then the chase around the kitchen is one of the most sensually-charged in the play. Baby lusts for the attention that only men like Vacarro may give her. And when the chase is over and she succumbs, she claims she is "cool and rested". It is indeed Williams' greatest achievement to turn sensuality into a spiritual and poetic powerhouse.
Under Simon Levy's perfectly modulated direction, the ensemble is divine. LaVanchy is pretty, innocent yet brazen as Baby Doll. This is a most difficult role and Lavanchy gives it her all in a luminous performance. Bess is handsome and sensually alluring as Vacarro. We sit on the edge of our seats, just waiting for him to win Baby over. Bess also brings compassion as well as power to the role, making him a knight in shining armor. Prosky makes the perfect uneducated, ill-mannered animal that is Archie. He brings Archie's pain to the surface, and his dramatic outbursts are nothing short of beastial. Karen Kondazian as Aunt Rose is wondrous. It is delicious delight to watch her create a full inner life with a character that has less dialogue. Her reactions really tell the story. Another illuminating performance! George Roland ably completes the cast as the sheriff, who brings some peace to the last scene of the play. Kudos as well to the splendid creative team! Jeffrey McLaughlin has designed a wonderfully crumbling set; Ken Booth does wonders with lighting as does Peter Bayne with sound; Terri A. Lewis's costumes are appropriately ragged and under-appealing.
Don't miss Baby Doll! This authorized adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann stays faithful to the movie, eliminating only a few minor characters. Branded as a dark comedy as well as a drama, there is much humor as in all Williams plays. And the poetry! Who else but Tennessee Williams could express malevolence as "an explosion of evil spirits that haunt the human heart"? And once again the Fountain Theatre shows its brilliance. It is no small wonder that it has always been and still is considered the premier Equity Waiver theatre of LA.
(photo credit: Ed Krieger)