Ensemble Theatre Company latest offering is Baby Doll, the saga of a dysfunctional love triangle between characters with a lifestyle in a state of decay. Adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann from the film of the same name, Baby Doll is based on Tennessee Williams’s one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Against a backdrop of mid-20th-century Southern poverty, Baby Doll, directed by Jenny Sullivan, gives timely commentary on society’s treatment of women.
Baby Doll (Lily Nicksay) is the foolish, nubile virgin bride of middle-aged Archie (Shawn Law). Married off by her dying father at age 18, Baby Doll manifests her most forceful agency through her sensational, almost lurid, sexuality, which combines apprehension, animosity, and magnetism into an alarming erotic identity. Though she can’t avoid Archie’s angry outbursts and bouts of drunken violence, Baby Doll has rebuffed his unwanted advances by promising to concede sex on her 20th birthday. Out of work and short on options since his cotton gin broke down, Archie burns down a rival plantation’s cotton gin, inviting the ire of plantation manager Silva Vaccaro (Asher Grodman). When Baby Doll drops clues that incriminate her husband of the arson, Vaccaro sees an opportunity for retribution; he half seduces, half intimidates her into signing a confessional affidavit.
Ensemble’s Baby Doll shows a world in which women, represented by Baby Doll and her daffy Aunt Rose (Wendy Phillips), are useful only for cooking and entertainment. Narrative tension is constant as viewers wait for either Archie’s comeuppance or Baby Doll’s rape — both of which seem inevitable. With commanding performances and transportive design concepts (the set’s dilapidated farmhouse is a beautifully constructed example of theater magic), Baby Doll’s twisted sexuality gives a pulsing reminder of the abuse and objectification women have faced throughout history. Powerful social commentary and a sharp, dark humor make Baby Doll a must-see spring production.
Presented by Ensemble Theatre Company. At the New Vic, Sat., Apr. 15. Shows through Apr. 30.