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Baby Doll

Fountain Theatre produces West Coast premiere adaptation of a screenplay by Tennessee Williams.

Daniel Bess, Lindsay LaVanchy, Karen Kondazian, and John Prosky in Pierre Laville and Emily Mann's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll, directed by Simon Levy, at the Fountain Theatre.
(© Ed Krieger)

Baby Doll is a Tennessee Williams belle once removed. The character came to life in a 1956 film (of the same name) written by Williams. With the permission of the Williams estate, Pierre Laville and Emily Mann adapted Williams's Oscar-nominated screenplay, and the play Baby Doll is having its West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theatre. Simon Levy's production is 90 minutes of down-in-the-mud southern sordidness with a sizzling Lindsay LaVanchy playing the titular nymphet, who carries around a doll and sleeps in an oversize crib, while John Prosky and Daniel Bess costar as the two alpha males trying to bag her.

One of them already has. Two years ago on his deathbed, Baby Doll's father gave her in marriage to the middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan (played by Prosky) with the understanding that Archie Lee would give the girl financial security. In two days, on her 20th birthday, Baby Doll must finally consummate her marriage, and a sexually frustrated Archie Lee is on the verge of spontaneous combustion. Also within the Meighan plantation, where walls are rotting and the furniture is being repossessed on a daily basis, Baby Doll's addled aunt Rose Comfort (Karen Kondazian) cooks, keeps house, and tends a decrepit garden, cooing girlishly over the appearance of a blooming rose.

Archie Lee hasn't exactly held up his side of the marriage bargain. A cotton processor who is perpetually drunk, he has seen his business fall to ruin. His recourse is to covertly burn down his neighbor's cotton mill driving its owner to Archie Lee to finish an order. The owner turns out to be a handsome young Italian immigrant named Sylva Vacarro (Bess) who knows Archie Lee is as crooked as a two-headed nickel, and seizes on Baby Doll as his avenue for revenge.

All of this makes for a twisted bit of psycho-sexual gamesmanship with Baby Doll as both pawn and prize. Alone with the girl while Archie is off working in his factory, Sylva works his considerable charm both to seduce and interrogate. Meanwhile Baby Doll, a none-too-sophisticated girl whose own hormones are blazing, can't tell the difference.

The physical production supports the southern gothic elements of the text. The walls and exterior of Jeffrey McLaughlin's set appear to be crumbling practically before our eyes, and Ken Booth's lighting helps evoke both the heat of a Mississippi summer and the remnants of a recently extinguished blaze.

With the seduction at its center, the tone of Levy's production waves between dark humor, heat, and menace. Will Archie Lee return home? What will he discover? Did he, in fact, engineer this scenario to save his own skin, and is it now spinning out of everyone's control?

In Bess' hands, Sylva is all smoothness and cunning. In 1952 Mississippi, Italians were only slightly less marginalized than the African-Americans who work in Archie Leigh's factory, and Bess' seductiveness is laced with a cold streak. Prosky's Archie Lee is as cruel as he is physically grimy, but even he can work a giggle or two out of a tender moment with his Baby Doll — before he resorts to threats and violence, that is.

The arresting LaVanchy anchors this production, and not just because of her character's four-alarm sexuality. The actress lets us witness the desperate danger of Baby Doll's plight and the transformation from girl to woman that is taking place at the worst possible time. The character has had it rough, and it's clear we are watching the last hours of her innocence. LaVanchy locates the fear and the deep sadness of Baby Doll.

As the curtain falls, with a line that Scarlett O'Hara would have applauded, we don't know which way the winds of fate will blow Baby Doll. She could figure it out or she could grow up to become Blanche DuBois. Either way, the prelude has been something exciting to watch.

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