By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“).
Playwright, author and poet Tennessee Williams wrote his one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton in 1946. He was still living in New Orleans in the 600 block of St. Peter Street, only two buildings down from the present site of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré.
Williams’ memory play, The Glass Menagerie, had garnered for him his first major success on Broadway and as it was ending its run, he was about to start writing his next hit play, A Streetcar Named Desire.
A Streetcar Named Desire proved to be an important Williams property for director Elia Kazan too. Kazan oversaw the original production from the time of its out of town tryout in Philadelphia to the times the show opened and closed on Broadway. Marlon Brando, who became a movie star after his leading role in the play, was also directed by Kazan in the memorable film adaptation along with featured performer Karl Malden.
Both Brando and Malden returned to the silver screen in 1954 to work in the Academy Award winning film “On the Waterfront.” Kazan and Brando won Oscars for directing and acting, while Malden received a Academy Award nomination for the film that took home Best Motion Picture honors.
After the Oscars had been handed out, Kazan became interested in finding another Williams property that might find favor with the public. It was then that he turned to 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and set about adapting the play into a bona fide screenplay.
Williams had always intended that the role of Baby Doll be patterned after the child-woman sex goddess Marilyn Monroe. By the time Kazan had the screenplay in his hand, Monroe was a gigantic star, having founded her own self-named independent production company and having achieved critical acclaim in “Bus Stop.” Despite Kazan’s reputation as a filmmaker, there was virtually no chance the blonde bombshell would make his picture.
So, he seized upon starlet Caroll Baker as a viable replacement and retitled the screenplay “Baby Doll” as a way of putting focus on its female star. Malden was selected to play Archie Lee Meighan, while Eli Wallach, who had achieved fame in Williams’ screenplay of his stage work The Rose Tattoo, was tapped to play his competitor Silva Vacarro.
“Baby Doll” went on to garner several Academy Award nominations including two for Baker and Williams and enjoyed a British Academy of Film and Television Artists (BAFTA) win for Wallach. Kazan received a Golden Globe Award for his direction while Malden, Wallach and Baker all were nominated for their roles in the film.
More than a decade later in the 1970s, Williams returned to the work and fashioned a full stage play now titled Tiger Tale, based on the film’s screenplay. In 2015, a new stage play titled Baby Doll premiered, adapted by Emily Mann and Pierre Laville. That is the latest version which is gracing the stage of Le Petit Theatre from now through March 31.
In the titular role, Maggie Windler, a performer known for her lyric soprano, plays the childlike Baby Doll Meighan with thoughtful and deliberate care. Married in name only, she sleeps alone in a crib, wearing a revealing negligee, while her husband Archie Lee Meighan (Paul Whitty) restlessly awaits her 20th birthday. That is the date when, according to a contract he executed with Baby Doll’s dying father, he will consummate their nuptials.
Baby Doll is wont to point out that the contract also requires that he support her in a manner of her liking. Archie Lee Meighan’s cotton gin business is failing due to the efforts of his rival Silva Vicarro (Todd D’Amour), a Sicilian, whom Meighan regards as one step above the unskilled black laborers he employs at his own factory. When the five rooms of furniture he bought on time is repossessed from their dilapidated wreck of a dwelling, Baby Doll announces her intention not to honor their contract.
Meighan, a mean-spirited alcoholic is abusive to Baby Doll, but he stops short of spousal rape. He takes out his frustrations by burning down Vicarro’s gin in a fit of drunken rage, thus leading the suspicious Sicilian to the Meighan ramshackle of a home to see if he can find evidence of Meighan’s complicity in the arson.
This sets up a sexually charged cat and mouse game between Baby Doll and Vicarro, who keeps Meighan busy with 27 wagons full of cotton while he attempts to seduce the childlike bride.
D’Amour’s role is overtly intense. With a once viable business in smoking ruins, he is determined to find evidence that Meighan is behind the arson. With her husband occupied, Baby Doll is hounded by Vicarro as both a potential witness and a would-be sexual triumph.
As Baby Doll, Windler is both naive and cunning. She toys with Vicarro, knowing that admitting her husband’s complicity in the arson could negatively impact her living arrangements. Vicarro thrusts and she parries.
The most distracting part of the play is the decision by D’Amour to utilize an almost undecipherable accent, which is based on Vicarro’s revealed ethnic heritage. D’Amour’s choice, sanctioned by director Maxwell Williams, takes away much of the enjoyment of the interaction between Baby Doll and Vicarro, especially when the action reaches its literal peak late in the play.
When the two appear on stage, however, sparks do fly.
Whitty, who is almost unrecognizable from his previous role as Mitch in Le Petit’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire last year, is a wonderful choice as Meighan, a man of almost irredeemable morals. As Tennessee Williams so brilliantly shows us, his hubris coupled with his inebriation, leads to his eventual undoing.
Janet Shea as Aunt Rose Comfort has a few moments of levity to offer to the mix. Rose is a woman who leeches off Meighan, serving as a cook and maid when not occupied visiting the sick in hospital to secure their ready supplies of chocolates.
Also of note is James Howard Wright, who makes an all-too-brief appearance near the end of the play as the Sheriff. It is a shame that actors of Shea and Wright’s stature would not have enjoyed larger roles, more worthy of their talent. That said, what time they do spend on stage is quite wonderful.
Technical directors Joshua Courtney (lighting), Tyler Kieffer (sound) and Kaci Thomassie (costumes) are superb, but the three-level set design by Steve Schepker on the small Le Petit stage is especially remarkable.
Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll, directed by Maxwell Williams, continues at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré now through March 31. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays. Matinees are at 3:00 p.m. $15-$55 with a special $25 price for Monday, March 25. Tickets are available online here or at 504-522-2081.