There’s a lot going on in the household of Archie Lee Meighan. But there’s a lot more going on in his own mind. Archie’s attempts to run a successful cotton gin business in the Mississippi gets closer to failure with every sip he takes from his whisky hip flask. Up to his eyeballs in debt, all the furniture has been repossessed. He still has three assets left – his crumbling mansion, his cotton gin and his alluring, teenage wife, Baby Doll.
Baby Doll is an adapted stage version of the 1956 American film of the same name. It stems from Tennessee Williams original play called 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Literary credit for this version also belongs to Pierre Laville and Emily Mann.
In the role of Archie Lee is Jamie Oxenbould. He captures the pitiful state of Archie so well, tormented by drink and the promise of consummating his marriage with Baby Doll on her 20th birthday, now only a few days away. In the meantime, he’s reduced to “peeping” on his wife through the slats of the timber walls. Through frustration and a warped business plan, he decides to burn down his rival neighbour’s cotton gin and regain his pre-eminence.
Baby Doll is a complicated character superbly played by Kate Cheel. Eager to be “her own woman”, Baby Doll has been controlled and manipulated by all the men in her life. Her dying father allowed her marriage to Archie. Now, she’s an awakening woman, uncertain of the sexual desires her body now yearns. She knows nothing wrong with spending her days around the house in a short, flimsy nightdress. Archie won’t be able to please her and the unexpected flirtations from neighbour Silva could all be for nothing.
In the role of Silva Vacarro is Socratis Otto. Although the victim of an act of arson, he has his own plan to prove Archie’s guilt. For Baby Doll, this involves a seduction and humiliation. It seems as though Baby Doll is the whipping board to further men’s selfish ambitions.
Baby Doll can’t rely too much on her Aunt Rose Comfort for support and guidance. Played by Maggie Dence, Aunt Rose is in her twilight years and house keeps for Archie. She is in her own world, trying to make ends meet whilst making hospital visits to elderly patients to enjoy the chocolates that are always on offer.
This is largely a drama with a black comedic slant. Ignoring the slight far-fetched nature of the plot, the story is quick-moving so that many events can occur over the 24-hour timeline. Like so many plays set in America’s deep south, heat and humidity have their role in inflaming passions and alcohol speeds things along nicely.
It is a first-class production of Baby Doll. Under the direction of Shaun Rennie, the fine cast is supported by a magnificent creative team. The set is detailed and features a raised stage, which serves as a secluded bedroom and shower for Baby Doll. The ground is interspersed with flowers and a garden swing symbolises both Baby Doll’s innocence and emerging sexual awareness. Magnificent lighting effects, especially during the arson attack on Silva’s property, are ingenious. Full marks to lighting designer Verity Hampson, set and costume designer Anna Tregloan and composer and sound designer Nate Edmondson.
Baby Doll is a theatrical experience to thoroughly enjoy. The audience is fully immersed and involved for the full 90 minutes. A must see! It is playing at Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli until 16th November, 2019.