BWW REVIEW: Pheromones, Possessiveness and Perfidy Combine In The Stage Adaptation of Tennessee Williams' BABY DOLL.
Saturday 26th October 2019, 2pm, Ensemble Theatre
Tennessee Williams' controversial story of deceit, desire and doing what it takes to survive comes to the Sydney stage with the Australian premiere of Pierre Laville and Emily Mann's adaption of BABY DOLL. Under Shaun Rennie's direction, the compact cast of 4 transport the audience to the Mississipi Delta to experience the dark comedy that considers topics that remain relevant over half a century after Elia Kazan's movie was first released in 1956.
Originally based on Tennessee Williams plays 27 WAGONS FULL OF COTTON and THE UNSATISFACTORY SUPPER, BABY DOLL tells the story of the 19 year old virgin child bride Baby Doll Meighan (Kate Cheel) and her much older, grotesque cotton gin operator husband Archie Lee Meighan (Jamie Oxenbould). Married two years prior as a means to an end to ensure that the teen would be looked after when her father was on his deathbed, Baby Doll has kept her husband at bay with the promise of consummating the marriage when she turns 20 in exchange for him ensuring that she is cared for. As her birthday looms in two days' time, the young woman, clearly not ready to share a bed with the balding, sweaty, alcoholic letch who is also now near bankrupt, lives in fear that her existing ploy of childlike tantrums, thumb sucking and wailing will no longer work until Silva Vacarro (Socratis Otto), the owner of the new competing cotton gin, finds a reason to visit.Given that BABY DOLL is playing in repertory with FULLY COMMITTED, Anna Tregloan has designed a set where the large elements of the black timber staircase which leads to an elevated landing and doorway and the side door work for both storylines. For BABY DOLL the stairs are leading up to what is implied to be a large decrepit plantation house with timbers that no longer keep out Archie Lee's peeping eyes and also afford the audience a voyeuristic glimpse into the activities within. The addition of a large flagstone pavement and sprouts of weeds and refuse ensures that it is clear that the Meighan's are down on their luck, unable to afford to have the local sanitation company collect the rubbish from the out of the way home that Archie Lee bought for a song because it is haunted.
Tregloan's costume design for the work ensures the qualities of the characters are highlighted. She makes sure Kate Cheel looks like a blend of childish innocence and womanly appeal in a cotton dress that now runs short and tight as the teen lacks the resources to replace the clothes bought when Baby Doll wed two years ago. Jamie Oxenbould is made to look like the ultimate no hoper slob and dirty old man in sweat stained untucked shirt, torn pants and socks that are worn through at the toes. The contrast between Archie Lee and Silva Vacarro is emphasised with Socratis Otto's nicely filled chinos, clean button down shirt and the tantalising reveal of a well-toned body which make it easy to understand why Baby Doll would be mesmerised by the neighbour. Maggie Dence looks the picture of an old world country spinster as Aunt Rose shuffles along in sensible shoes and apron as she serves as housekeeper and chaperone of sorts in the Meighan househould.
Verity Hampson's lighting design gives as the audience a captivating introduction to Baby Doll and her peeping tom husband as they too get glimpses of the young woman changing in the backlit upstairs room, ensuring that the dynamic between the two is automatically felt. Shifts in light take the work from inside the house to outside in the relentless Mississippi sun, the mystery of the evening, lit up with distant fire and the suspense of dangerous games of hide and seek in the almost empty mansion. Nate Edmondson's sound design draws on Deep South gospel and foreboding heavy tones to heighten the mystery of this comedy thriller. This primal bold background is contrasted with Aunt Rose's carefree mindless singing of a folk song as she potters around the home apparently deaf to most of the abuse Archie Lee hurls at her.
Kate Cheel is fabulous as Baby Doll as she shows that whilst the juvenile innocence is an act to manipulate Archie Lee, there is an honesty in the response to the new emotions that Silva is stirring with his overt flirtations. She expresses the dichotomy of the young woman, unwilling to share herself with her husband and unfazed by the prospect of going into town in a dress that she has outgrown or flailing supine in front of a stranger. She has a subtly of expression that balances the innocence and the intelligence with an expression that almost feels like watching ideas click into place as she seeks self-preservation. Whilst a much smaller role, Maggie Dence also gives Aunt Rose a similar self-preserving resourcefulness that she sits beneath the façade of a dithering deaf old lady ensuring that both women, initially seen as frail and dependent on the decisions of men, are seen as having more power and smarts than they would like to let on.Archie Lee is made suitably vile by Jamie Oxenbould who ensures that the audience feel the same way about the older husband as it is implied the townsfolk do. Forever on the precipice of wondering if Archie Lee will force his will on his young wife, the audience are kept on high alert with his expressions of outbursts of drunken rage and sense of entitlement to have Baby Doll fulfil her side of the bargain even if he has failed in providing for her. There is a fire and fury in his eyes as he shifts gears to a maniacal rage that will ultimately cause his downfall. Socratis Otto is a perfect fit for the neighbour that is everything that Archie Lee isn't. He is the epitome of tall dark and handsome, which society has traditionally associated with success, making it easy to convince the audience that the Sicilian migrant is a hard working entrepreneurial individual who is just trying to make an honest living in a society that is plagued by the prejudice that any outsider is bad. He exudes an enchanting mystery and element of delicious danger as he wields a riding crop and shifts between seductive strategies to win the truth out that will implicate Archie Lee out of Baby Doll. With BABY DOLL, Shaun Rennie has created another well-crafted captivating piece of intimate theatre as the audience, seated in Ensembles steep raked theatre, get a 'fly on the wall' experience of the tale of revenge, deceit, betrayal, lust and sexual frustration all presented with Tennessee Williams' trademark Deep South dialogue. Well worth catching.
Photos: Prudence Upton