American playwright Tennessee Williams made multiple attempts to diagnose and to dramatize the brutal contradictions of Southern culture on the skids. Through unforgettable characters such as Blanche DuBois, Amanda Wingfield, and Maggie the Cat, Williams expressed the potent and unpredictable mixture of desire and despair that we now recognize as the core of his substantial achievement. When Baby Doll opens at the New Vic on April 13, Santa Barbara audiences will witness what is perhaps the most extreme image to develop out of Williams’s x-ray analysis of American morals: a young married woman who sleeps in a crib and sucks her thumb while grown men leer at and lust after her.
Originally crafted by Williams as a screenplay, the stage version of Baby Doll that Ensemble Theatre Company is presenting was adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann. Elia Kazan, who directed the 1956 film, fought censorship every step of the way, even after the film was released. Kazan insisted that the story’s perverse central conceit of a husband who has agreed to wait until his sexualized child bride turns 20 before consummating the marriage was nevertheless essential to its message. In a letter to Jack Warner, the film’s nervous producer, Kazan wrote that whatever else he might change, he could not “reduce the element of Archie Lee’s sex frustration” without compromising Williams’s work.
Speaking of the film’s scandalous reception, Jenny Sullivan, who is directing the show for Ensemble, said that Williams and Kazan likely “made some history that they didn’t want to make.” Recognizing that the material presents significant challenges for a contemporary audience, Sullivan said that “it would be a trap to go for the clichés” when presenting these characters, adding that “we must show what makes them human.” Sullivan sees the demons that Archie Lee confronts in Silva, his immigrant rival, and Baby Doll, his dependent and selectively child-like spouse, as being only too relevant to our current political climate. “People are feeling disenfranchised, and that’s Archie,” said Sullivan.
Ensemble Theatre Company presents Baby Doll at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.) April 13-30. Call (805) 965-5400 or visit etcsb.org.