Baby Doll, now playing at the Lillian Theatre, is a play based on a movie based on a play. Tennessee Williams adapted his one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (with the help of Elia Kazan) for the 1956 movie Baby Doll, directed by Kazan and starring Karl Malden, Caroll Baker and Eli Wallach.
The screenplay has now been adapted back into a stage play by director Joel Daavid, better known for his set and lighting designs. These wonderfully creative and ambitious designs, which enrich small theater productions throughout LA, often upstage the rest of the production, and such is the case here.
The set, featuring a rustic, dilapidated three-story country house, is not only visually stunning but industriously functional as well. Along with his expressive lighting design, it immediately transports the audience to a lazy autumn day in rural Mississippi in the 1950′s where the action takes place.
As the audience takes their seats, farmhands are already snoozing in the shade or hanging on the laundry line. Aunt Rose Comfort (played marvelously by Jacque Lynn Colton) comes outside to feed the chickens and take down a load of “coloreds,” beginning a strangely surreal dance, presumably the dream of 19-year old Baby Doll (understudy Chloe Peterson filling in admirably for principal actress Lulu Brud) asleep upstairs in her crib.
When she awakes, however, Baby Doll’s life is jarringly undreamlike. Her lecherous husband (Tony Gatto), twenty years her elder, 200 pounds her heavier and the product of an arranged marriage, is ogling her, while waiting impatiently for her 20th birthday so they can consummate their marriage. All the while the finance company is repossessing their entire houseful of furniture due to missed payments.
When a handsome and exotic foreigner (Dominic Rains) comes into their lives, Baby Doll sees the possibility of escape from her life’s inevitability and hopelessness. In short, she begins to learn that nobody puts Baby Doll in a corner. (I was surprised to see Mr. Rains filling in for Ronnie Marmo in the role of the Silva the Sicilian, because he is also currently appearing in a rotating cast of another production, Love Sick , next door at the Elephant Theatre. Some actors struggle to find roles and this guy is doing two simultaneously?!)
While the performances are uniformly good and the production utterly professional, the play failed to hold my interest, and I can’t really say why. Perhaps, it is because the script which was so controversial when written is tame by today’s standards. Perhaps, the addition of various dramatic elements (such as the surreal dance at the beginning) to give the screenplay a stage-y feel, do little more than dilute Williams’ realism. Or perhaps Daavid the director just got lost in the shadow of Daavid the designer.