Baby Doll | Ensemble TheatrePhotos – Prudence Upton

Archie Lee Meighan is a dissolute middle aged racist in the American Deep South who runs a cotton gin that is almost as decrepit as his own moral compass. He believes his business has dried up due to the opening of a more modern gin built on the neighbouring property by a “syndicate man”, but one could suspect that Archie Lee’s own drunken incompetence may have had more than a little to do with it as well.

Equally as much on his mind as his financial frustrations, however, are his libidinous ones. For some two years since his wedding, Archie Lee’s marriage has gone unconsummated. Lest you feel sorry for the lecherous old tyrant, however, bear in mind that his wife “Baby Doll” is less than half his age, and was essentially married off underage to fulfill the wishes of her dying father that she be looked after. 

Coddled and harassed in almost as equal measure as she is both infantalised and sexualised, the clock is ticking for the seemingly vacant-headed and petulant Baby Doll. Only a promise extracted by her father has kept Archie Lee’s conjugal demands at bay all this time, on the understanding she will be “ready” on her 20 birthday. Which is the day after tomorrow.

So maybe this sexual frustration has reached fever pitch, or maybe it’s the liquor and the heat, or jealousy over his neighbour’s imminent business success, or a call from the rental agency that all their furniture is about to be repossessed, or all of the above. Whichever is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, one night something snaps in Archie Lee. The next thing Baby Doll knows, the brand new cotton gin next door is burning down. Her husband is nowhere to be seen, but seems awfully chipper the next morning. What follows thereafter in this one-act drama is technically fairly straightforward on a plot level. Silva Vacarro, the Meighans’ neighbour, arrives with his wagons of unprocessed cotton to hire Archie Lee’s gin while his own lies in ashes. He then proceeds to try and seduce a confession, sex, or both out of Baby Doll while his business rival and suspected arsonist is busy working. With the irritant of senile Aunt Rose Comfort appearing at inopportune moments, Archie Lee is eventually confronted by what is going on, and tensions come to a head.

What is not so straightforward are the themes and politics of the play. The racial antipathy towards this Sicilian neighbour doesn’t stay below the surface for long, let alone the slurs levelled at nearby black workers, or the implication that Archie Lee may be have some deeply sinister associations. Alcoholism, domestic abuse and mistreatment of the elderly all get touched upon, but undoubtedly the stickiest wicket here is the portrayal of coercive sexuality, and across a large age gap at that. 

This is especially the case considering that a major emotional lynchpin of the story, upon which the three primary characters all hinge in their different respective directions, is predicated on the idea of cuckoldry. We shan’t dignify with repetition here the perniciously politicised slang diminutive of this word that has sadly come into more common parlance due to the Alt-Right, but watching a play like this in the current era brings their appropriation of the very concept into sharp focus. 

Even though neither term is ever used in this play, given the enormous age disparity between the husband and his notionally virgin wife, and her subsequent possible “seduction” by Vacarro, it makes one interrogate the inherently patriarchal conceptualisation of what it means to be cuckolded. The notion is culturally loaded in the extreme, with unquestioned assumptions of possessive entitlement over women’s carnal availability, and inherently gendered double standards of sexual virtue. Indeed, the entire conceptual framing of the cuckold (and the absence of an equivalent term for cheated-upon wives) as ultimately boiling down to an affront to the male ego, seems all the more evident through the grotesque lens of the repugnantly covetous Archie Lee’s sense of ownership over his “child bride”.

The squeamish aspects don’t end there, either. Viewing this material in 2019 there is definitely going to be discomfort for many in their reception of the grey areas (or even the notion of regarding these as “grey areas”) which this drama suggests are at play here. These are between seduction and sexual harassment, coquettishly disingenuous rebuffing or fearfully muted resistance, and most of all between implied versus enthusiastic consent. Indeed, the narrative as presented in this production is highly suggestive but ultimately still ambiguous about whether any sexual congress even occurs during the plot as presented, which further muddies the water. 

Are we to read Baby Doll’s change in behaviour towards the end of the play as an example of the old post-coital “she’s a woman now” trope? Could she perhaps have a touch of Stockholm Syndrome, or has she simply had time to think, and hitched her wagon to whom she deems the better prospect?

A further consideration in the mix is that this production of Baby Dollis an adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann of the 1956 Elia Kazan film of the same name, which was itself an adaptation conflating two separate 1946 one-act plays by Tennessee Williams featuring similar lead characters. One of the plays, The Long Stay Cut Short,or The Unsatisfactory Supper features the character names of Archie Lee and Baby Doll with the Aunt Rose subplot, while 27 Wagons Full of Cotton was the basis for the main arson/sexual narrative. 

In this earlier stage version, the young wife is definitively raped by Vacarro, while the film presents the question of Baby Doll’s consent to the sex, if any indeed occurs, as more ambiguous, yet was massively controversial at the time regardless. In any version, what occurs in this play makes for an ethical landscape that is deeply problematic at best, and this seems certainly by design.

Anna Tregloan’s picturesquely rickety balcony set overgrown with weeds that immediately evokes the sweltering Mississippi Delta, redressed from its shared usage with the concurrent production of Fully Committed. This production is an uncommonly stylish and stylised one for the Ensemble Theatre, under the confident hand of director Shaun Rennie. Utilising an atypical degree of scenic lighting effects, theatrical haze and immersive soundscapes, this is a richly realised production which largely compensates for some of the lulls in the drama, despite the short runtime. Dramatic tension, sexual tension, the tension born from impending discoveries or even violence are clearly at the heart of this text. Thus the occasional sense that various beats as staged are not as taut as they should be is perhaps the only significant shortcoming in this otherwise very assured production.

The four actors are each excellent, with Maggie Dence doing a fine turn in the smaller role of Aunt Rose, while Socratis Otto brings a nicely understated sense of menace behind the outwardly friendly and then insistently seductive VacarroJamie Oxenbould does a superb job in embodying the memorably pathetic, repellant and even scary Archie Lee, a fetid little troll of a man. His performance perfectly composes a portrait of a character who would be almost pitiable, were he not drowning in the self-inflicted consequences of his own toxic masculinity.

Perhaps the most crucial part is that of Baby Doll, and Kate Cheel does a great job with the difficult, often uncomfortable material required of her. A character in her own right while also constantly positioned as a cypher for these dueling men’s desires, Cheel seems not to opt for easy routes, denying herself either simple victimhood or any degree of agency unsupported by the text. 

Those more intimately familiar with the different versions of the story may possibly take issue with the extent to which she leans into her character’s apparent erotic receptivity during scenes which, in their earliest version at least, culminated in rape. Yet it seems perhaps an equally valid reading that her performance sought to convey an intentionally unsettling mix of discomfort and arousal. The character’s all-too-fleeting moments of empowerment are also poignant, which Cheel brings to life with nuance.

Baby Doll is an effective, if imperfect, re-adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-renowned material, via an intermediate film version. It is an atmospheric one-act play with some excellent actors and stylish direction, concerning some inherently uncomfortable subject matter. This show may not be everyone’s tall cool glass of homemade lemonade, but is well worth a watch.

Ensemble Theatre presents
Baby Doll
by Tennessee Williams | adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann

Director Shaun Rennie

Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall Street Kirribilli NSW
Dates: 18 Oct – 16 Nov 2019
Tickets: $38 – $78


Most read Sydney reviews