You can cut the air – and the tension – with a knife in Princeton these days. The McCarter Theatre’s new production of Baby Doll, adapted from Tennessee Williams’ 1956 screenplay (and his short play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton), takes us deep into the Mississippi delta, where it’s summertime and the cotton is high… but the livin’ ain’t easy. It’s uncomfortable. It’s sticky. And as long as Susannah Hoffman and Dylan McDermott are onstage, it’s sultry – in more ways than one.
Baby Doll (played by Hoffman) is a child in a nineteen-year-old woman’s body, still sleeping in a crib, sucking her thumb, and parading around in tiny nightgowns, unaware of the devastating effect her appearance has on men. She’s stuck in a loveless, forced marriage to the much older – and much creepier – Archie Lee Meighan. Archie is wily and ruthless, but destitute and not too bright. When he burns down his rival’s cotton gin, that rival, the Sicilian immigrant Silva Vacarro (McDermott), decides to exact a revenge that may include taking Baby Doll’s innocence.
The deviant sexual implications of Baby Doll’s plot (and of Baby Doll herself) led to the film being widely condemned and banned in its time, although these days it seems relatively mild by Williams’ often bizarre standards. (There is no sexual violence in Baby Doll, although the threat of it lingers.)
Director Emily Mann’s production (Mann and Pierre Laville adapted Williams’ movie script for the stage) is sensual in the full sense of the word: it completely engages the senses. During nighttime scenes, the sounds of crickets and falling rain envelop the audience (thanks to Darron L. West’s dense sound design). Natural-seeming light slowly rises up on a sleeping Baby Doll in the morning, while later on, light peeks the wooden slats of Archie’s house in a criss-cross pattern (Edward Pierce designed both the lighting and the gloriously ramshackle three-level house set).
And even in a 360-seat hall, the performances have a tactile dimension: the actors make their entrances and exits from the audience, with McDermott making his first appearance at the back of the hall, slithering down the aisle and virtually pulling the audience along with him. When Baby Doll, sitting with Silva on a swinging chair, complains to him that “It makes too much body heat when we’re crowded together,” you know just how she feels. In the sweltering southern summer, everyone longs for a drink of water or lemonade (“I would be glad to help you squeeze the lemons,” Silva purrs at Baby Doll), and you can practically sense the humidity even in an air-conditioned theatre.
As Silva, the pale, blue-eyed McDermott doesn’t seem remotely Sicilian; that lack of authenticity is the production’s most glaring misstep. But he does look like he could beat you up and seduce your wife (probably at the same time), which definitely counts for something. And he makes you see why, after being stuck with the rickety Archie for years, Baby Doll might be willing to be seduced. McDermott is powerful but not overbearing – and the same goes for Hoffman, who finds the humor, depth and cunning in what could be a flirtatious caricature.
Robert Joy plays Archie with a sense of danger and desperation, showing why Archie is unable to control his most desperate urges. And Patricia Conolly gives the production some moments of grace, stillness, and comedy as Baby Doll’s doddering aunt, who keeps house (barely) and even has to deal with a live chicken.
The McCarter’s Baby Doll doesn’t overpower you with its sensuality; it takes its time. It doesn’t burn – it simmers. And that’s what makes it so satisfying.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Baby Doll plays through October 11, 2015 in the Berlind Theatre Auditorium at the McCarter Theatre Center – 91 University Place, in Princeton, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (609) 258-2787, or purchase them online.