Abbott Skinny Reviews Baby Doll

Baby Doll @ Pacific Resident Theatre
Red hot forbidden love and mind games in the delta of Venice.
Baby Doll @ Pacific Resident Theater

In the first act of “Baby Doll”, we meet Archie Lee, an older hapless cotton-gin owner drilling a peephole to ogle his sleeping bride-to-be, nineteen-year-old Baby Doll. Archie obsessively fawns over an exasperated Baby Doll throughout the play waiting to consummate a deal he made with her dead father. While she dreams of leaving before he can touch her, sleeping in an actual crib due to the lack of furniture Baby Dolls only salvation is her live-in Aunt Rose Comfort who is ceaselessly bullied by Archie’s scorch. The tension is palpable when rival owner Silva Vaccaro gets thrown into the mix. A Sicilian in the deep delta, Silva has come to investigate the mysterious fire that burned his own cotton-gin down the night before. The circumstances of which he suspects ol’ desperate Archie Lee may have something to do with. What happens next is a torrid tale of deception, vengeance and forbidden love.

Bryan Kent plays Archie Lee with a remarkable sense of urgency. Here is a character whose mind is in such dysfunction because his cotton-gin has fallen flat. Furniture being sold from his house all the while he drowns in whiskey cajoling over the promise of a young girl. I wondered sometimes if there was actual booze in his bottle. Aunt Rose Comfort, played by PRT legend Penelope Safranek, provided space from the emotional exchanges between Archie and Baby Doll. Safranek’s ability to play the role with a tuned detachment gives us time to breath and offers relief while Kent’s performance of Archie Lee implodes from within. He’s an unpredictable alcoholic capable of mood swings that are both provocative and gripping, so gripping in fact, members of the audience were actually tied to their seats wondering which man we would we get from scene to scene; the good Archie or the drunk Archie. Silva however, played by veteran film and stage actor Bruce Nozick (Big Little Lies, NCIS, Weeds), plays a tough calculating charmer intent on getting to the truth of the matter. He smells a rat in Archie and intends to smoke him out one way or another. Even if that means getting to Baby Doll first.

Instead of the stereotypical depiction of the Sicilian Silva as seen in the Elias Kazan film version, Nozick brings us a grittier Lords of Flatbush version that is reminiscent of 1980’s Jersey Boy mixed with a time-eternal cowboy. Pitted against one another these two men conjure up a striking paradox. Kent as the good ol’ boy lusting lush and Nozick as the unfettered foreigner seeking truth. This is exactly kind of social commentary you expect from a Tennessee Williams play matched with the current political climate.

The showstopper however is beholden firmly with the actress in the title role.

Greer Sinclair who plays the role of Baby Doll is nothing short of a revelation on stage. Seeming as though she may have just stepped out of a golden era film set in the Mississippi Delta, Sinclair embodies classical elements mixed with a dreamy beauty only seen in eras gone by. A singer/songwriter and performer herself Sinclair carries the production through emotional highs and bittersweet lows with a grace rarely seen in off-broadway theater. Considering this is her first time on the PRT stage this is no little feat. The ease and cadence of her singular performance creates the impression Baby Doll may have been constructed personally for her by Tennessee Williams. When matched against seasoned stage actors like Bryan Kent and Bruce Nozick, Sinclair holds her own giving Baby Doll a timeless certainty. Where other actresses might be seduced into the potential overdramatizing kitsch of the comedic elements in Baby Doll, Sinclair seems grounded authentically in the character quite possibly due to her own New Orleans roots. Sinclair allows an entrance into the internal world of Baby Doll as we spend time simply watching her at rest, at play or waiting for a hero. It was those quiet moments during the show where we could feel the fear, the hope and the potential of what may come her way.

If you go in cold without having seen the film or even without knowing the kind of writer Tennessee Williams was then strap on your best pantaloons and buy the next available ticket because this ensemble cast pulls no punches. Pacific Resident Theater’s version of Baby Doll may ring familiar but it has been artfully crafted for the small space, so expect a slight divergent approach. Fast-paced with light hearted moments to balance the emotional weight you will be left in anticipation of the next act during its single intermission. The play was adapted for the stage by Emily Mann and Pierre Laville. Essential plot-points are intact, however, Director Ann Bronston’s interpretation for the spirited theater synthesizes moments with dialogue beats that mesmerize and engage the audience. Bronston explains, “Solving the production requirements was challenging and fun. The play takes place in about 8 different locations which is pretty hard to define in a small space. I am proud of the simplicity, clarity and fluidity of our scene changes. Essentially we just moved a door and the multi-purpose crib/swing/table piece to create each new location.”

This minimal approach to the set design affords the audience an unparalleled intimacy with the performers as well as the space itself. Bronston manages to tune this aspect of the actor’s relationship to the space just enough for us to feel a sense of mystery while feeling engaged. The acoustic soundscape of jazzy noir interludes and crooning 50s radio enhance the mood of the storytelling even more making a total experience that can only be felt and sensed. As Archie barrels down the aisle finding Silva at his home you feel his primal rage and in-turn Silvas ultimate strategy to goad him along. When Baby Doll pulls up her suitcase to the edge of the stage and looks starry eyed into the night for anyone to save her, you want to help. You are engaging with different part of this restricted space and the effect, this total immersion within it, affords the viewer a more interactive cinematic experience. I’m not sure this dynamic would work otherwise. Artistic Director Marilyn Fox of PRT may have wisely chosen Baby Doll for this stage specifically because it gives exactly that allowance of creating a world at its bare naked minimum. Perhaps a world of it own or at least a unique aesthetic experience that consorts alongside Greer Sinclairs stunning portrayal it feels as though a camera is zoomed in so close — it’s hot to the touch.

When a scene is hot, and I mean whips on skin hot, the chemistry of the room goes to a boil. There’s no hiding on this stage, as we see in a scene where Baby Doll tries to hide in the attic from a teasing Silva who has her alone in the house. He chases her with an actual whip at first lovingly, even caressing her arm with the end, finally building to an impassioned plea for her to admit Archie Lee lit the fire.

“Open sesame,” Silva declares to Baby Doll who is seen audience-side on a ceiling mount elevated above the stage.

“The game is over, I quit! Mr. Vaccaro this whole attic floor is about collapse underneath me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of letting you fall…” A deceptively sneaky Silva responds flogging the wooden support beam beneath her.

“I’m scared of you and your whip. Can you do me a kindness and just leave!”

“Your scared I’m going to whip you? You’re scared I’m going to leave red marks on your body, your creamy silky skin?”

“Uh huh,” Baby Doll whimpers. As the menacing yet detached Silva realizes Baby Doll holds the key to his Sicilian version of divine justice a sense of edge-of-your seat panic truly sets in. We feel the heat of the delta summer, the drip off the nose sweat in the deep south. We wonder if Baby Doll will fall through the attic or worse, what is to become of her. All of this, within the confines of a small local Venice theater.

Pacific Resident Theater lives in an interdimensional cross-section of Venice in a place where time and space seem to warp ever so subtly. A special kind of magic can be felt in this place. From waiting beside the rustic bar in the box office to watching the amazing actors within arms reach echoing through the walls of it’s intimate haunt. The effect may be due to the lay lines of Abbot Kinney’s original Venice of America. Sharp triangular streets around pythagorean canal geometries weaving within our roughly 3.14 mile piece of our holographic Italian Coney Island. For a small repertory theater taking on the challenge of the material and delivering it with pitch perfect craftmanship is a monumental accomplishment.

“Since this in the perfect place to learn,” Etta James’ voice vibrates out of a transistor radio before the show opens , “teach me tonight.” Behind the tattered windblown scrim separating the audience from the stage we see a projection of a decrepit antebellum mansion surrounded by the detritus of an unkempt owner. As the projection fades with Etta’s voice we will be transported. In that moment, Tennessee Williams brilliant story set in Mississippi during the cotton-gin era will spring to life.

Tennesee Williams Baby Doll adapted for Stage by Emily Mann and Pierre Laville
Directed by Ann Bronston With: GREER SINCLAIR, BRYAN KENT, BRUCE NOZICK, AND PENELOPE SAFRANEK