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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Baby Doll — McCarter Theatre Company, Berlind Theatre

Baby Doll interiorIn Tennessee Williams’s script for “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” and the 1956 screenplay that derives from it, “Baby Doll,” everybody puts Baby in a corner.

Or foments her retreating to one for self-defense.

First it’s her husband of convenience, Archie Lee Meighan, who keeps Baby Doll at bay. Baby Doll marries Archie Lee to appease her dying father who worries Baby Doll and her maiden aunt, Rose Comfort, will have no one to sustain or look after them following his death. The marriage takes place when Baby Doll is 18, very much an age of maturity in the Mississippi Delta area where she lives. Baby Doll feigns innocence and fear of intimacy and bargains with Archie Lee to allow to remain a virgin until her 20th birthday, which is two days away when Emily Mann and Pierre Laville’s excellent adaptation of Williams’s screenplay begins at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre in a lush, sexually steamy production Mann directed.

Baby Doll lives up to her name, the only one Williams or Mann and Laville give her. She sleeps in fetal position in an antique wrought iron crib with one of its sides down to give her easier access and more room. Her room is feminine and lacy with juvenile features like stuffed animals and frilly curtains.

One would think Baby Doll is still a girl, but one look at Susannah Hoffman, taking on a role that became a breakthrough for Carroll Baker and Meryl Streep, challenges that opinion. Hoffman is quite the nubile ingénue, a pre-Lolita nymphet who can excite a libido prancing through the ramshackle Meighan house in a slip and negligée, her lithe and graceful figure quite visible and enticing. For all Baby Doll says no, she is mean enough in her way to tease Archie Lee and deny him nuptial pleasure while advertising how gratifying it might be.

Baby Doll isn’t only mean. She’s put upon and in a trap that requires her to be cunning and wary. We, as with most Williams heroines, tend to take her side immediately by sharing her disgust with Archie Lee, played, in a change of pace, by the usually clean cut Robert Joy as a lecherous slob who could never comprehend the difference between lust and love, let alone apply the distinction to the voluptuous Baby Doll who is adept at tantalizing as she is at withholding. While Hoffman’s Baby Doll obviously pays attention to her hair, makeup, and clothing, scant though it be, Joy’s Archie Lee skulks about in crud-caked overalls and looks as if the last time he bathed was when he unavoidably got caught the rain.

Everything about Joy’s Archie Lee is repellent. He certainly doesn’t earn our loyalty or high regard when the first time we see him, he’s trying to jimmy the lock on Baby Doll’s nursery/boudoir and, failing that, working with his screwdriver to force a peephole in the plaster adjacent a wooden door jamb. At that time, we don’t know Archie Lee is Baby Doll’s husband, but we can tell he is unsavory and out to have what won’t be given willingly.

In addition, Archie Lee is at least 30 years Baby Doll’s senior. He has a scrawny build and unkempt chin whiskers, He is far more lascivious than romantic. He is no girl’s young dream, but especially not Baby Doll who not only recoils from Archie Lee’s appearance and panting but unaffectionate desire, but resents his lack of success and ambition. He owns a cotton gin but doesn’t compete well with other millers in the Delta. In fact, his gin is broken down. His house is in equal disrepair, and Archie Lee is deep in debt. For a 20th birthday present, Baby Doll might receive both the unwelcome attentions of Archie Lee and the repossession of their house’s furniture, all but her crib and a dining room set that was part of her dowry. Even when Archie Lee shows a tender side and speaks quietly to Baby Doll while she nestles his head in her lap, the talk is more about Archie Lee forcing Delta farmers to give him more work by sabotaging the gin of the biggest miller via an act of arson than it is of love or the promise of a happy-ever-after.

The last thing Baby Doll wants to be is Archie Lee’s wife in more than name. The idea of consummating their marriage appalls her. You can sense her underlying nausea when Archie speaks to her through her locked door. She crosses her arms around her shoulders in an act of protection and of revulsion.

Williams is too clever to compose a play, even a one-act like “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” as an ongoing cat-and-mouse game of a damsel finding real distress as she wards off a wretch to whom she happens to be married.

There has to be conflict. There has to be an alternative.

Enter Silva Vaccaro, a Delta farmer of Italian descent who has a huge harvest of cotton to be milled, 27 wagon loads to be exact, and no place but Archie Lee’s to take it since Archie followed through with his destructive plans and torched Silva’s gin.

At McCarter, Silva’s arrival raises the steam and temperature in the Berlind Theatre.

And not just from suspense or the expectation of violent confrontation.

At 53, Dylan McDermott retains all the sensuosity and sexual tension of a man half his age. His body taut, his motions as feline and as sexually suggestive as Hoffman’s, with just the right amount of perspiration and hair on his exposed chest, McDermott could increase the pheromones in a convent let alone on a dusty Delta farm where a loveless young woman seeks relief from the slovenly ogre who’s itching to deflower her.

McDermott exudes virility and command that contrasts diametrically with Joy’s mealy worminess and which complements Hoffman’s youthful desire for affection. Williams’s story may be simple and straightforward. Mann and Laville may take pains to keep it that way. But while Mann keeps matters clear-cut as a writer, she gives them palpable tension and texture as a director. Her production of “Baby Doll” is as teasing as her title character’s alternative flirting and withholding and exponentially more sultry. Mann brings you back to the theater of the ’50s when suspense and danger were a staple of plays, when you feared for something to happen as much as you dreaded it wouldn’t (and couldn’t wait to see it in any case). Mann’s “Baby Doll” is fraught with anticipation, some of which causes aversion, as when it looks as if Archie Lee may have his way with Baby Doll, some of which stirs genuine anxiety and thrilling drama, as when Silva’s inevitable sexual parlay with Baby Doll is a nail-biting combination of conquest, rape, craving, compatibility, and consent. Mann’s staging and Hoffman and McDermott’s acting keep you unsure of what you want. Part of you is cheering on their union, and the other part is hoping it won’t be violent. Every fiber of you is hoping the coupling of Silva and Baby Doll won’t be avoided or averted. What Mann comes up with is particularly satisfying. Spoiler though I am, I will keep that from you because Mann and her actors play it so movingly and so well.

Mann’s production keeps you on edge. Even the predictable and formulaic seems immediate and new. That is because of the passion McDermott, Hoffman, and even Joy exude. You feel their intensity. It permeates the entire atmosphere of the theater, and you feel a stake in what unfolds.

McDermott’s unstinting manliness informs the production. He is a force, a man who knows what he wants and is used to getting it whether he has to entreat or demand. Baby Doll is not Silva’s reason for coming to the Meighan property. He has two other missions in mind, one practical, one punitive, and both involve Archie Lee. Baby Doll is a distraction and, like much in Mann and Laville’s script, a polar distraction. Sexual fire ignites the moment Hoffman’s Baby Doll and McDermott’s Silva spot each other. No chemistry dilemma here. What you don’t realize is going on in Silva’s mind is whether to use Baby Doll to exact extra revenge on Archie Lee or whether attraction — strong, unmistakable attraction — will take an inescapable course.

The great, gratifying part of Mann’s production is you don’t know. All is possible. All is before you to consider. All compels you to watch and pay attention, at times to see not if but how the expected will occur, at times to wonder how certain you can be that Williams. Mann, and Laville will follow the standard dramatic map the fiery sparks between Silva and Baby Doll suggest. Mann’s “Baby Doll” is sultry, sex-charged, and romantic. McDermott sees to that, and Hoffman abets him. It’s a reminder of all theater can be, not only in telling an involving story but in creating mood, apprehension, and a panoply of emotions that keep you engaged and on edge every second.

Hoffman’s Baby Doll plays at being insouciant, but she know what she’s doing every moment. This makes it more suspenseful when Baby Doll is unsure of Silva’s intentions, whether he’s going to ravish her to leave her to seal her marital bargain with Meighan.

McDermott is all raw power. Even when he’s romantic and affectionate, there’s no softness but more of a Rhett Butler ruggedness, combined with a worldly aspect for a Delta planter. He is different from just about any man Baby Doll has encountered. He is far from the slobbering letch Meighan represents, unlike her more honorable but hardscrabble father, and miles apart from the boys her own age who flirt and woo for fun.

NealBoxWhen McDermott’s Silva sets out to do something, you know he is going to get it done. Even if he has to plot and wait to make it happen. He has a different sort of impatience from Archie Lee, who can be resisted and who is unable to muster resources or courage to take what he wants. Silva takes a direct course. He speaks his mind. He carries out his intentions. The question is what he has in mind with Baby Doll. That’s another angle that keeps you engrossed. Will Silva take real interest in Baby Doll, or is she just the woman who is there and the wife of his adversary? McDermott’s Silva isn’t going to waste subtlety to leave clues. One of the strengths in McDermott’s performance is you’ll see what he is going to do when he does it.

Robert Joy, most frequently seen as slick, finagling type or a steady family man, embraces his character role as the crusty, cantankerous Meighah who has real longings for Baby Doll but does nothing to make himself pleasing to her and exemplifies the kind of man who thinks sex is coming to him because he’s male and wants it.

Joy plays the kind of crafty old bird Walter Brennan made famous, except instead of being comic and fatherly, he’s lustful and threatening. He reviles you the same way he reviles Baby Doll, and as cagey as Artchie Lee thinks he’s being with Silva, Joy lets you see the Archie Lee is a loser, someone who could be outthought by an teenage ingénue and easily bested by a no-nonsense businessman and determined rival like Silva.

The fourth character in “Baby Doll” is Baby Doll’s aunt, Rose Comfort, who seems to come along with the deal when Baby Doll marries Archie Lee.

Aunt Rose Comfort provides comic relief, but Williams, Mann, and Laville also use her to control some action. Her appearances often thwart Archie Lee or Silva just as one of them is zeroing in on Baby Doll. The Rose Comfort character creates suspense by delaying it. In the mold of older Southern women created by Eudora Welty or Carson McCullers, Rose Comfort seems a bit fragile and helpless, so she creates empathy, especially when Archie Lee threatens to throw her out.

At McCarter, Rose Comfort is played by the always excellent Patricia Conolly, one of the steadiest character actors of the ’70s and ’80s (with a fine Olivia from “Twelfth Night” to her credit as well), who finds every varied note in Rose Comfort’s character and plays it to perfection.

Conolly’s Rose Comfort hears conveniently, and Conolly is deft at showing when the character is feigning or when she’s really stone deaf. She also has a nice sheepish grin while her wide eyes have that “I’m caught” look when she overhears Baby Doll tell Silva how Rose Comfort visits people at a nursing home, allegedly out of altruistic charity, but really to eat chocolates they are given by other visitors. Williams, Mann, and Laville create a great joke by having Baby Doll say Aunt Rose Comfort is especially delighted when someone she’s visiting is asleep or comatose. The chocolate is easier to come by, and she can help herself to more pieces.

Brian McCann does a fine job in a small, utilitarian role as a local sheriff.

Edward Pierce’s hulk of a set with large, open rooms in the Meighan home and assorted debris and detritus for a yard is a picture of neglect, a once stately home gone shabby because Archie Lee can’t make a go of his milling business.

Pierce is also the lighting designer, and he uses shadows and darkness well to help Mann, as director, build mood and suspense. Susan Hilferty’s costumes supply exactly what Mann needs. Both McDermott and Joy wear well-worn, perspiration-affected open shirts, but oh the difference in the carriage and power of the men, especially when McDermott turns up the heat. Baby Doll’s slips are perfect. Her housedresses cannot conceal her sexuality, suppressed when Archie is near, in overdrive when Silva appears.

“Baby Doll” runs through Sunday, October 11, the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place (University Place between College Road and the Alexander Street Circle), in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday (no performance Tuesday, Sept. 29), 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, A 7:30 p.m. show is set for Sunday, Sept. 27. Tickets range from $95.50 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 609-258-2787 or by visiting www.mccarter.org.

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