Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The bad boy here is Archie Lee Meighan (Matt Shelton), and the song is appropriate because it's the theme of the reality TV show "Cops," which presents videos of police making busts and interacting with (mostly) shady, down-on-their-luck types who aren't always making the wisest decisions. The MeighansArchie Lee, his young bride Baby Doll (Briana Walsh), and her mousy, absent-minded Aunt Rose (Julie Dimas-Lockfeld)would fit right in on any episode of "Cops" (though in 1956, when the play is set, "Cops" was still more than 30 years from its premiere). Archie is in an almost constant state of inebriation, sipping at an ever-present flask or guzzling straight from a bottle, while Baby Doll flips through a copy of Cosmopolitan and sips at a Coke while she reclines in the crib where she sleeps, thumb in mouth, even though she's on the verge of her 20th birthday.
That birthday is an important one, for it's the age at which Baby Doll has agreed to finally consummate her marriage to Archie, which took place some two years prior. In all that time, Baby Doll has been sleeping in a crib in the nursery of Tiger Tail, the decrepit plantation house (realized with appropriate shabbiness by designer Steve Coleman) where she and Archie have set up housekeeping. The two bicker incessantly. "Don't call me a fat old thing," Archie says, and Baby Doll shoots back "You get young and thin and I won't call you a fat old thing." Archie bosses Aunt Rose into submission, but is less successful in his attempts to control the empty-headed Baby Doll, who feels trapped in a sham of a marriage and dreads the arrival of her birthday, when she will have to submit to Archie's drunken ardorwhich he has previously satisfied by staring at her through a peep hole he has carved in the nursery door.
Archie has big worries of his own. He had been bringing in income by ginning cotton for the local farmers, but a new, more modern cotton gin has been built at the plantation across the way, and Archie's business has floated away like a bit of cotton fluff on a breeze. Archie initiates a plan to change his fortunes, but the results of his efforts lead to a visit from Silva Vaccaro (Joe Napoli), the Sicilian running the new cotton gin, who takes a shine to Baby Doll, who reciprocates the interest in a way of which her husband can only dream.
The milieu is classic Williams: a steamy Southern locale, a wastrel drunk, a virginal young woman using her sex appeal as both a weapon and defense mechanism, and an older woman powerless against the forces of men and nature. But it's not anywhere near his best work. Lacking the lyricism and depth of character of Williams' more famous works (Baby Doll was dubbed "The Crass Menagerie" by The New Republic), the play shows promise early on, but sputters into chaotic rage that feels confusing and unresolved.
But none of the problems with this Baby Doll are the fault of the cast, who give appropriately steamy, gothic performances. Briana Walsh does fine workboth with her Southern accent, which is as mushy and oily as a mess of greens, and her flirty, teasing sexuality. She lazes about in a satiny nightgown that barely covers her hips, or in short dresses, which she clearly knows drives men's desires, but stops short of the satisfaction they seek.
As the emasculated (by both Baby Doll and his business misfortunes) Archie Lee, Matt Shelton embodies the frustration some men feel when they've lost power or influence, yet can't quite face up to their new, impotent reality. He's got the sweaty resignation of a man who has lost his footing on a slippery slope and sees the abyss toward which he is sliding and can find nothing to grab onto to arrest his descent.
Silva Vacarro has a firm grasp of his power, however, and Joe Napoli brings a gentle swagger to the role. Though his intensity is at times a little too understated to reveal his true menace, Napoli's physicality and invasion of Baby Doll's personal space is still chilling. Aunt Rose is the least well-developed character, but Julie Dimas-Lockfeld still finds a way to make her feel genuine, and engender the only real sympathy that any of the characters deserve.
Steve Coleman's set almost has the feel of a doll house, with touches of forced perspective, and narrow, cramped spaces that enhance the claustrophobia of the situation in which Williams' characters find themselves. Likewise, costume designer Adriana Gutierrez has done wonderful work dressing the cast of four in outfits that perfectly reflect the time and the characters' stations in life. Amanda Gerard-Shelton's props are also in keeping with the era and help keep us grounded in time. Sound designers Ava Tolentino, Jackson Lennon, and James Goode are to be commended for helping create a sense of the world outside Tiger Tail, which enhances our experience of the story.
Baby Doll was a sensation as a movie, shocking the establishment (especially the Catholic Church), was publicized with one of the largest billboards ever created, and marked the film debut of Eli Wallach, who played Silva Vacarro. Today, the subject matter isn't nearly so shocking, but solid performances from a committed cast make this production something more than a curiosity for Williams completists.
Baby Doll, through November 3, 2018, at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$50. For tickets and information, visit sheltontheater.org or the theater before a performance.