Baby Doll, opening the 2015 season at McCarter Theatre, is a well-tailored refurbishing of Tennessee Williams’s 1956 screenplay of the same name—it shows the finely stitched, tightly plotted quality of Williams’s work, which the author often felt powerless to defend against alteration (notably with regard to the director Elia Kazan). This slice of Southern fried Americana does show its age, primarily in the mores and sexual stereotypes, pre-‘60s. Williams–a gay man examining heteros here, without his shocking, telltale homosexual undercurrents, only made worse by the censorship of the studio system in the film of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), for example–portrays his 20-year-old title heroine as “too lazy to think” and men as wolf-whistling louts. Actually, this may be Williams’s William Inge moment, recalling Picnic (1953 play; 1955 movie), and Baby Doll is also about as close to what could be material for a primary-colored musical as Williams ever concocted—viewers may be reminded of the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt 110 in the Shade, based on N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker (1954). The deeper psychologies of Williams’s most memorable characters, such as Blanche, Stanley, and the Wingfields, among others, are missing(although Mildred Dunnock, as a cast-aside aunt in the film is haunting and unforgettable). Patricia Conolly plays the same role on stage in a more comic tone, and Baby Doll should probably best be remembered as a roseate comedy, even if it is a whisker away from tragedy.
Susannah Hoffman, in the title role, doesn’t give the character much time for pause or silence—and we can’t see her acknowledgment of her life’s continuing entrapment. The villain of the piece—her husband (Robert Joy), with whom she has never slept–actually becomes the most sympathetic of the play’s characters, despite Williams’s piling on of negative sexual and racial qualities. Joy, nevertheless, finds the desperate laborer within a character who has lost his business, future, and even his furniture—yet sustains an inherited family during his downward spiral. His antagonist, Dylan McDermott, with a life which can be rebuilt, is vital, virile, and too easily a winner. Baby Doll, popular Williams, finds the author in probably as buoyant a mood as you'll ever see him, and like a favorite toy at bedtime, his play should be held close.
Directed by Emily Mann.
Baby Doll by Tennessee Williams
Adapted for the Stage by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann
Patricia Conolly (Aunt Rose Comfort), Susannah Hoffman (Baby Doll), Robert Joy (Archie Lee), Brian McCann (Sheriff), and Dylan McDermott (Silva Vacarro)
Press: Tom Miller
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© 2015 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
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