In 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.
First it’s her husband of convenience, Archie Lee Meighan (Robert Joy). Baby Doll (Susannah Hoffman) marries Archie Lee to appease her dying father who worries Baby Doll and her maiden aunt, Rose Comfort (Patricia Conolly), will have no one to sustain or look after them following his death. The marriage takes place when Baby Doll is 18; she feigns innocence and fear of intimacy and bargains with Archie Lee, who is thirty years her senior, to allow to remain a virgin until her 20th birthday. That 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, steamy production.
Baby Doll sleeps in fetal position in an antique wrought iron crib. 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. For all Baby Doll says no, she teases Archie Lee and advertises how gratifying nuptial pleasure might be.
We share Baby’s 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. 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 when he unavoidably got caught the rain. He owns a broken down cotton gin, his house is in equal disrepair, and Archie Lee is deep in debt. When Archie speaks to Baby Doll through her locked door, she crosses her arms around her shoulders in an act of protection and 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. Enter Silva Vaccaro (Dylan McDermott), a Delta farmer of Italian descent who has a huge harvest of cotton to be milled and no place but Archie Lee’s to take it since Archie torched his gin. McDermott exudes virility and command that contrasts diametrically with Joy’s mealy worminess and complements Hoffman’s youthful desire.
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.
Aunt Rose Comfort provides comic relief, but Williams, Mann, and Laville also use her to control some action. Her appearance often thwart Archie Lee or Silva just as one of them is zeroing in on Baby Doll. Conolly’s Rose Comfort hears conveniently, and Conolly is deft at showing when the character is feigning or when she’s really stone deaf. 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. As lighting designer, Pierce uses shadows and darkness well to help build mood and suspense. Susan Hilferty’s costumes supply exactly what director 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. Read the full review >>> [Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ] September 11-October 11, 2015; mccarter.org.