Last night was a magical evening of Southern hospitality right here in the heart of Hollywood. The Fountain Theatre and the company of Baby Doll had the pleasure of welcoming Eustace Winn IV, proprietor of the actual BabyDollHouse in Benoit, Mississippi, into our home. Mr. Winn was thrilled watching our west coast premiere and enjoyed meeting the cast and sipping mint juleps with the company in our upstairs cafe after the sold out performance.
Eustace Winn is the current owner of the historic Burrus House, a stately Greek Revival style plantation home which began being built by his family in 1858. The family moved into the house in 1861, shortly before the Civil War. The house served as a hospital during the conflict. There are stories that John Wilkes Booth spent ten days in the Burrus House after shooting President Lincoln in 1865. In 1928, the last remaining Burrus family member who lived there passed away, and the house entered into decades of decline, decay, and vandalism.
“Baby Doll” movie (1956)
Nearly 100 years later in 1955, film location scouts were asked to find a suitable “decadent and dilapidated southern mansion” for Elia Kazan’s new movie version of the Tennessee Williams play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. When they discovered the worn down Burrus House in Benoit, Mississippi, they knew they found what they were looking for. The film was Baby Doll, starring Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach and Karl Malden. The movie was later nominated for four Academy Awards and the Burrus House became a tourist destination.
In 2005, one of the Burrus heirs, the late Dr. E. H. Winn Jr., of Greenville, established the Burrus Foundation and the house was fully restored to its former splendor. It is magnificent to see today.
The Burrus House
Eustace Winn enjoyed a marvelous evening last night at the Fountain seeing our acclaimed production of the stage adaptation of Baby Doll and socializing with the company. Mint juleps were savored and Mr. Winn passed around a hardbound copy of the script, which he had signed by actors Daniel Bess, Karen Kondazian, Lindsay LaVanchy, and John Prosky.
There will forever be a connection between the Burrus House and Hollywood. A new chapter in that Hollywood story continued last night at the Fountain, and will be remembered by all.
Daniel Bess and Lindsay LaVanchy in ‘Baby Doll” at Fountain Theatre (photo by Ed Krieger)
by Brent Johnson
It was one of the most polarizing films of its time.
In 1956, the black comedy “Baby Doll” — a tale of feuding cotton gin owners and a teenage virgin bride in the Mississippi Delta — drew controversy for its sexualized themes and images. The Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency even launched a campaign to get it banned.
At the same time, the film — written by iconic playwright Tennessee Williams and directed by the legendary Elia Kazan — drew critical acclaim, garnering four Academy Award nominations.
Now, nearly six decades after its release, the movie has come to life as something else: a new play.
“I’m a great lover of Tennessee Williams,” explains playwright and adaptor Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton, NJ. “I’ve directed a number of his plays. I knew him, actually. And I always felt that this particular film didn’t quite come off or have its due. I felt there was a play trapped inside this movie.”
Mann adapted the film with French playwright Pierre Laville, whose own adaptation premiered in France in 2009. The new Mann/Laville adaptation debuted at the McCarter last year. The Fountain Theatre production is the West Coast premiere.
“I read his adaptation and said, ‘Yeah, it’s really interesting, but I don’t think it’s quite right for America yet,’” Mann says. “There were some things that felt rather dated. So, I went back to the original screenplay that (Williams) had written for Kazan and found some other material and started to work on it and fell in love with it and just discovered a play. It’s like finding a new Tennessee Williams play.”
Mann — a two-time Tony Award nominee — says she was drawn to the themes Williams was exploring in the film: “race and caste and color in the South.” And not just between black and white residents, but also between whites and foreigners like Vacarro. They are themes, she says, that continue to rear their heads today — especially in the wake of the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., last year.
“If you look at what’s going on with the shooting in South Carolina and you see that kid, we have the grown-up version of that in this play in the character of Baby Doll’s husband,” Mann says. “He’s a born and bred ‘peckerwood,’ as he calls himself.
“So, you have all of these themes in play — the desire and the passion and the humor and the South,” she continues. “All of the legacy of slavery and reconstruction and Jim Crow, all the way up to what now resonates in a very present tense, that we see why we are dealing with what we’re dealing with, because we see what people came up and out of.”
Mann says the story is less risqué now, but it does include one of the most erotic scenes she’s ever staged: when Baby Doll begins to awaken sexually. However, when it was released, it was the film’s sexuality that drew the most attention — especially the image of Carroll Baker as Baby Doll, dressed in a nightgown and sucking her thumb while lying in a crib. (The movie has been credited with naming and popularizing the babydoll nightgown.)
Lindsay LaVanchy as Baby Doll at the Fountain Theatre
“That’s pretty risqué no matter how you do it,” Mann explains. “It takes your breath away to see a young girl feel herself aroused to a level where she can barely stand up. It’s not pornographic. It’s just watching a man genuinely know how to touch a woman and get her to places she’s never been and she’s never felt before in her life. It’s transporting. “
Technically, Mann wrote none of the play herself. She pieced the stage version together from Williams’ finished screenplay, his early drafts and other pieces that the playwright had written using these characters — including the one-act play “27 Wagons Full Of Cotton.”
“He was always trying to figure out how to begin and how to end it,” Mann says “Which characters were in, which characters were out. Whether it was a girl’s awakening, or whether it was a rape … I was able to see all of his drafts and see what he might want to construct now. I laced it with those things.”
Tennessee Williams was a man she was happy to call a friend.
“Oh, he was such a darling man,” she remembers. “Funny, irreverent, emotional. He was just like his plays. He called me ‘Miss Emily.’ We just had a lovely relationship. We just got on like a house on fire. He was just an amazing spirit.
“I just wish he were here to see this.”
Brent Johnson is a writer from East Brunswick, N.J. He’s currently a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark and the co-founder and co-editor of entertainment website Pop-Break.com. This post originally appeared on JerseyArts.com.
This summer, L.A. audiences get to see a brand new play by Tennessee Williams. Simon Levy directs the West Coast premiere of Baby Doll, adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann from the 1956 Academy Award-nominated film of the same name – the first-ever Williams Estate-approved adaptation of this Williams screenplay. Baby Doll opens at the Fountain Theatre on July 16, starring Daniel Bess, Karen Kondazian, Lindsay LaVanchy, John Prosky and George Roland.
Darkly comic and crackling with sexual tension, Baby Doll is the story of 19-year-old married virgin “Baby Doll” Meighan (LaVanchy), who must consummate her marriage in two days, on her 20th birthday — as long as her middle-aged husband, Archie Lee (Prosky), upholds his end of the bargain to provide her with a comfortable life. When Archie Lee burns down his neighbor’s cotton gin to save his failing business, his rival, Sicilian immigrant Silva Vacarro (Bess), arrives to seek revenge. What ensues is a complex mix of desire and desperation, with Baby Doll as both player and pawn.
“The miracle of Tennessee Williams is that he can write these wonderful, wacky, wildly rich and complex characters and situations, yet underneath it all are timeless social and political themes,” says Levy. “It’s almost as if this play is a look at today’s America. It’s astonishing.”
The Fountain Theatre, Levy and Kondazian, who plays the role of dotty Aunt Rose Comfort, have a long combined history with Williams. Levy has previously directed five of his plays for the Fountain, including Orpheus Descending (1996); Summer and Smoke (1999); The Night of the Iguana (2001); The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More (2007); and A House Not Meant to Stand (2011), and the Fountain additionally produced Four X Tenn in 1996. By the time she appeared in Orpheus, Iguana and Milk Train for the Fountain, Kondazian had already starred in numerous Williams productions, including a 1979 production of The Rose Tattoo for which she received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award – and which led to a steadfast friendship with Williams until his death in 1983.
Adapted for the screen by Williams from his one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton,Baby Doll was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Karl Malden, Carroll Baker and newcomer Eli Wallach. It immediately caused a sensation, due in large part to the poster image depicting Baker in a crib sucking her thumb. It was labeled variously “notorious,” “salacious,” “revolting,” “steamy,” “lewd,” “suggestive,” “provocative” and “morally repellent,” and Cardinal Francis Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, personally denounced the film before it was even released, declaring that Catholics would be committing a sin if they saw it. Baby Doll premiered as a stage play at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ in 2015; the Fountain production is only its second. “Adapting the screenplay of Baby Doll to the stage has been an exciting process,” Mann said. “Every word is Tennessee’s; my co-adaptor, Pierre Laville, and I simply freed the play within the screenplay to allow the four main characters to live on stage.”
Set design for Baby Doll is by Jeffrey McLaughlin; lighting design is by Ken Booth; sound design is by Peter Bayne; costume design is by Terri A. Lewis; props and set dressing are by Terri Roberts; fight director is Mike Mahaffey; dialect coach isTyler Seiple; production stage manager is Emily Lehrer; assistant stage manager isMiranda Stewart; associate producer is James Bennett; and Stephen Sachs andDeborah Lawlor produce for the Fountain Theatre.
Tennessee Williams, 1956.
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), born Thomas Lanier Williams III, explored passion with daring honesty and forged a poetic theater of raw psychological insight that shattered conventional proprieties and transformed the American stage. The autobiographical The Glass Menagerie (1945) brought what Mr. Williams called “the catastrophe of success.” He went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes, for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. Among his many other masterpieces are Vieux Carre, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Rose Tattoo, Orpheus Descending, The Night of the Iguana and Camino Real.
The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 225 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include being honored for its acclaimed 25th Anniversary Season in 2015 by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council; the 2014 Ovation Award for Best Season and the 2014 BEST Award for overall excellence from the Biller Foundation; the recent production of the Fountain’s Citizen: An American Lyric in Charleston, S.C. to commemorate the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel Church; and the naming of seven Fountain productions in a row as “Critic’s Choice” in the Los Angeles Times.