‘Baby Doll’ brings a Tennessee Williams screenplay to the stage in Princeton

Susannah Hoffman and Dylan McDermott co-star in "Baby Doll" at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through


Susannah Hoffman and Dylan McDermott co-star in “Baby Doll” at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Oct. 11.

Middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan and his teenaged bride, whom he likes to call Baby Doll, have the worst marriage ever. Her dying father arranged for the marriage when she was 18, ignoring the fact that Baby Doll can’t stand him. (And, really, who can blame her? The guy has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.) She’s told him that she won’t be emotionally ready to consummate the marriage until her 20th birthday, but her stalling tactic won’t last forever. As the play “Baby Doll” begins, that landmark is right around the corner.

“Baby Doll,” which is making its U.S. premiere at the Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton this month, began life as a 1946 Tennessee Williams one-act play titled “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” Williams then adapted the play for the 1956 movie “Baby Doll” (which generated controversy, at the time, because of its sexual themes), and French playwright and director Pierre Laville and McCarter artistic director Emily Mann have now adapted the screenplay for the stage. (Mann is also directing this production.)

The setting is the shabby Mississippi plantation house where Meighan (Robert Joy) and Baby Doll (Susannah Hoffman) live, along with Baby Doll’s doddering Aunt Rose Comfort (Patricia Conolly). This is a place of sweltering heat and few creature comforts. A little acoustic blues music sets the mood.

Susannah Hoffman and Robert Joy in "Baby Doll."

Susannah Hoffman and Robert Joy in “Baby Doll.”

Meighan is in the cotton business, though he hasn’t been making much money recently because a relatively young Sicilian, Silva Vacarro (Dylan McDermott), opened his own business nearby, with a much better cotton gin. Meighan’s finances are in such bad shape, in fact, that his furniture is about to be repossessed. He’s desperate, and Baby Doll’s refusal to be physically intimate with him is not exactly doing wonders for his state of mind.

When Vacarro’s cotton gin burns down, Vacarro suspects that Meighan has committed arson, and he visits his neighbor in order to confirm his suspicions. He’s friendly on the surface, but it’s immediately apparent what his ulterior motive is (to the audience, at least; Meighan and Baby Doll don’t seem to see it). The rest of the play is a cat-and-mouse game, with, inevitably, increasing sexual tension between Vacarro and Baby Doll.

While I appreciated the production’s gritty sense of atmosphere and the blunt power of Williams’ words, I had trouble becoming interested in the struggle between Meighan and Vacarro. As played by McDermott, Vacarro seems a bit smug, like he knows he’s always three steps ahead of the other characters. And Meighan is such a despicable character — he’s not just old and poor and stupid and a drunk, but he hits Baby Doll — that it seems impossible that she will show any allegiance to him once she has any other options.

Baby Doll is problematic as a main character, too, since, as her name implies, she’s living in a state of an arrested development. She’s more of a child than an adult, and can’t seem to grasp what the other characters are up to; in one ridiculous scene, Meighan keeps hinting, unsubtly, that he wants her to lie about him being away from home at the time of Vacarro’s fire, and she just doesn’t get it. At the start of play, she passively accepts her wretched lot in life. By the end, things have changed for her, but not really because of anything she’s done.

Mann and the McCarter deserve credit for bringing a “new” Williams play to the stage, 32 years after his death. But “Baby Doll” was far from his finest moment.

“Baby Doll” is at the McCarter Theatre Center through Oct. 11. For information, visit mccarter.org/babydoll.

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