New Tennessee Williams’ ‘Baby Doll’ opens season at McCarter Theatre

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When “Baby Doll” hit local movie theaters in 1956 the Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency tried to have it banned and Cardinal Francis J. Spellman forbade Catholics to see the film written by Tennessee Williams, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Karl Malden, Eli Wallach and Diane Baker.

Williams’ screenplay was based on his one-act plays “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” and “The Long Stay Cut Short, or The Unsatisfactory Supper.”

A few years ago the screenplay was adapted for the French stage by Pierre Laville. He has collaborated with McCarter Theatre artistic director and resident playwright Emily Mann for the current Mann directed staging of “Baby Doll.” It runs through Oct. 11 at the complex’s intimate Berlin Theatre space.

Set in a dilapidated plantation house in 1952, the story of two rival Mississippi Delta cotton gin owners and the young wife they use and abuse seems tame by today’s standards.

Good ol’ boy Archie Lee sets fire to Italian immigrant Silva Vacarro’s gin. Vacarro knows Archie Lee did it, but has no proof. Archie Lee convinces his virgin bride Baby Doll to say he was home the night of the fire. He threatens and bullies her, twisting her arm until she agrees. And he reminds her the deal he made with her daddy — marry her at age 18, wait to age 20 to consummate — expires in two days.

Soon Vacarro saunters onto the scene, while Archie Lee is out, and uses his charms to confuse naive Baby Doll until she blurts out her husband was not home when the fire erupted.

Dylan McDermott as Silva (TV’s “The Practice”), Robert Joy as Archie Lee (TV’s “CSI: NY”) and Susannah Hoffman as Baby Doll, plus Patricia Conolly as Aunt Rose, turn in excellent, nuanced performances, breathing life into these characters whose lives revolve around growing and harvesting the same crop for nearly two centuries. The method of getting cotton to market may have changed, but age-old prejudices and cut-throat tactics have not.

Edward Pierce’s 3-story decrepit mansion — looking so much like a little girl’s doll house with one side missing so we can see all the rooms inside — dominates the stage as junk and a two-seater swing spill out off the stage. His lighting helps encourage the feel of the heat and humidity that seemingly causes these characters to move and talk much more slowly.

But this nearly two-hour play without intermission is more a slice-of-life revenge play without much of a climax. It’s not even close to such Williams’ classic as”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” of “The Glass Menagerie.”

Pretty much what you see is what you get. Archie Lee is about to lose what little he has left. His furniture has been repossessed and now this “foreigner” builds a cotton gin to compete with his.  Silva knows Italians aren’t welcome and he can’t expect much from the sheriff without reliable proof. So he gets it from a sheltered 20-year-old whose somewhat ditzy aunt isn’t much help.

It’s obvious that Baby Doll, who sleeps in a crib, would be more attracted to the handsome, sexy and solicitous Silva rather than her scrawny, balding, bigoted husband. But once Silva has Baby Doll’s signature on an affidavit that Archie Lee was not home the night the gin burned down, we wonder if he’ll still be interested in her very long. Baby Doll seems to just be waking up as the play ends, realizing how much power her sexuality has over men and now that her husband is being carted off to jail, there’s not much keeping her at home. What she does next would be the kind of second act to this one-act play I’d love to see. But then, it wouldn’t be entirely written by Tennessee Williams, would it?

To purchase tickets call 609.258.2787 or click here.