Tennessee Williams’ steamy, Southern and slyly comic drama “Baby Doll,” at New Stage Theatre Oct. 24 through Nov. 5, marks the Southeastern premiere of a new adaptation of the 1956 film.
An ensemble cast is eager to get their teeth into these characters — fully-formed and rich with layers on a set dripping with Mississippi Delta atmosphere. The story of cotton gin owner Archie Lee Meighan, his young wife Baby Doll, her dotty Aunt Rose and rival gin owner Silva Vacarro, a Sicilian, is framed by a dilapidated antebellum mansion and ripples with schemes and desperate acts.
“Every three or four years, I have to do some Tennessee Williams,” says Brian Landis Folkins, in the role of Archie Lee, an alcoholic, frustrated and failing man scrambling to retain his standing. “There’s something about his writing that is so guttural. It’s just so deep. … He just has an honest, painful voice that reflects in his work in such a real way.
“It’s the dirty mirror that we hold up to see the truth. It’s not pretty, but we have to look at it.”
Set in the early 1950s, there’s a feel of change afoot, and the crumbling of the old guard. The three-story set, New Stage’s tallest yet, is a dollhouse-like cross-section that functions almost like a fifth character, the way it looms over the whole thing, cast members say.
“The whole theme of the piece is desire, desperation and poetic decay, and that’s kind of what the set is doing … being reclaimed,” says director Rus Blackwell.
Greed, arson, seduction and revenge all have a role in “Baby Doll,” with dark humor teetering in delicate balance.
“The clash of these four very different characters in this world is where I think a lot of the humor comes from,” says Billy Finn, who plays Silva Vacarro, the immigrant with a chip on his shoulder, but the cunning and drive to get ahead. Different views, different objectives, different frequencies try to match up. “When those things clash, you get great drama, and you also get great comedy.”
“There’s a lot of funny in the everyday,” Folkins adds. “And, there’s a lot funny in people acting like idiots because they take themselves so seriously.”
In the title role, Betsy Helmer finds Baby Doll, a woman/child nearing 20, “fully in her body and in the present moment, completely aware of everything going on right now,” and optimistic in her view of the world. “She has an immense amount of strength that is wrapped up in a docile quality. … She’ll flip on a dime, and you won’t expect it from a young Southern lady.
“She has an immense amount of self-esteem, given all of her circumstances,” she says. Both knowing and innocent, she’s player and pawn.
Archie Lee wed Baby Doll with a pledge to her dying father that he wouldn’t consummate their marriage until her 20th birthday, which is days away. That struggle adds to the pressure on this desperate man, who’s close to losing all he’s worked hard to get. “At the root of it is the pain and the fear that is driving his decisions,” Folkins says. “He goes on quite the ride. And, boy, the audience is going to go on that ride with him.
“It’s also what makes the story so fascinating — this slice of life in the South in the ‘50s, when things are really at the cusp of change.”
Ouida White completes the cast as Aunt Rose Comfort. In her late 70s, Rose is beginning to forget things, but remains fiercely protective of her family and grounded in her faith. “She gets it, absolutely, deep, deep down — the things that are important are absolutely clear to her. But she will turn around and drop the same pan three times. … I hope if you cry, you laugh at the same time. Which is what Tennessee Williams does, over and over and over.”
“That brilliant dichotomy,” Finn calls it. “That’s what’s so great about Williams, is that he finds those incredibly jagged edges to all his characters that make them so incredibly engaging.”
Themes such as the immigrant experience and what it means to be a woman in this society strongly resonate.
“As I’m speaking the words onstage,” Helmer says, “things are hitting me that are even more prevalent now, probably, than when they were initially written, just in terms of the political climate that we’re in currently, and how it would feel to not be a white man in America right now — basically, any type of other.”
“That stuff just jumps off the page if you can dig in and get specific enough,” says Blackwell. His association with New Stage includes key roles both onstage (“Best of Enemies,” “The Crucible”) and at the director’s helm (“All My Sons,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”).
The film “Baby Doll” was controversial in its day for the implicit sexual themes. Its provocative movie poster showed star Carroll Baker curled in a crib, sucking her thumb (a tease, since the crib is the rare furniture left after unpaid bills). Her costume popularized the babydoll nightie.
Identification with the movie and caricatures versus real people, “the two big traps,” are key challenges, Blackwell says, as well as the compressed time to hone and present such rich material. That richness is the reward.
“The magic happens when the writer vomits it on the page, right? Nobody knows what that looks like, except the writer. And then, our job is to bring truth and humanity to it in a specific way.
“Actors and directors all like to think that they’re the magicians, but we’re just the keeper of the magic.”
“Baby Doll” was a late addition to the 2017-18 New Stage season, which had originally scheduled Williams’ “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” in this slot. Each met the criteria for New Stage artistic director Francine Thomas Reynolds. In Mississippi’s bicentennial year, she wanted to present a play by Williams — a Mississippian who contributed to the American landscape of drama — that New Stage hadn’t previously produced, that was also set in the state.
Rights for “Baby Doll,” adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann from the 1956 film (the screenplay of which Williams adapted from his own one-act “27 Wagons Full of Cotton”), are difficult to obtain because of the intricacies of different entities attached to it.
“They’re very particular about who does this play,” Reynolds says, and New Stage is only the fourth American company to do it. She suspects the theater’s Mississippi connection worked in its favor.
Performances are Oct. 24-Nov. 5, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m Sundays. Tickets are $30 adults, $25 seniors/students at www.newstagetheatre.com or 601-948-3531. The show’s recommended for ages 16 and older, for mature language and situations.