Philip Solomon, Thomas Silcott “The Painted Rocks at revolver Creek”
The Fountain Theatre has been honored with 23 awards of excellence from StageSceneLA for productions in its 2015-16 season. Fountain productions awarded were the west coast premiere of Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, the world premiere of Dream Catcher by Stephen Sachs, the Los Angeles premiere of My Mañana Comes by Elizabeth Irwin, and the west coast premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll.
Since 2007, Steven Stanley’s StageSceneLA.com has spotlighted the best in Southern California theater via reviews, interviews, and its annual StageSceneLA Awards.
The Fountain has been honored with the following awards this 2015-16 season:
YEAR’S BEST INTIMATE THEATERS The Fountain Theatre
OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION, DRAMA (INTIMATE THEATER) The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek
OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION, COMEDY-DRAMA (INTIMATE THEATER) My Mañana Comes
When director Simon Levy was casting our west coast premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll back in April, finding the right actor to play Archie Lee Meighan was a challenge. Levy sifted through hundreds of submissions and auditioned dozens of actors yet he struggled to spot what he was looking for. He needed an actor who could authentically evoke the crude, raw good ol’ boy Southern brutality of the cotton gin owner yet also reveal the character’s fear and vulnerability. Finding that actor seemed impossible.
Then, one afternoon, actor Daniel Bess, already cast in the play, made a suggestion. Did Simon know John Prosky? Daniel’s friend and fellow-member at Antaeus Theatre Company? A meeting was scheduled. And from the first moment that Prosky began his audition it was clear to Levy and everyone present that the hunt for Archie Lee Meighan was over.
“I’m strangely drawn to Archie’s desperation,” Prosky now says. “It’s not always easy or fun to play but I get that part of Archie Lee on a visceral level. I’m certainly no racist, or a cuckold nor am I married to a 20 year old — although my wife does look so much younger than me that it is sometimes assumed. But Archie’s place on “the edge” is something I commune with at this point in my life. Not completely sure why but I sometimes feel like I’m going to loose everything. Maybe it’s just because I have so much to lose.”
Prosky indeed has many blessings. He is married and a father. His son just started 8th grade. In addition to a busy acting career, he teaches. Like Archie Lee in Baby Doll, he sometimes worries that what he values most might all be taken from him. “I sometimes have this fear that I will fuck it all up or it will all somehow slide into oblivion,” he admits. “The good actor’s first job is to bring himself to the work and that part of Archie Lee I get.”
Not every aspect of Archie Lee came easy.
“His physical abuse of Baby Doll I find a stretch for me” he concedes. “And the shotgun. I hate guns. I am always using a gun in something I’m acting in but this is my first shotgun. And a shotgun in the hands of a white male in Mississippi in the 1950s should look as comfortable as an iphone in the hands of a hipster today. So that took some work.”
The Fountain Theatre production — and Prosky’s performance — has earned widespread critical acclaim. But it’s the audience response that pleases him most.
“It’s the reason theater is my first love,” he says. “That immediate communication of actor as storyteller is the whole point of theater and so much more rewarding than anything I’ve ever done on film or TV. “
And his first-time experience working at the Fountain Theatre?
“The Fountain and this production have made me feel respected, welcomed, supported, challenged and fulfilled. Very few theaters can do all that.”
When the movie Baby Doll was released in 1956, it was the film’s sexuality that drew all the attention.
Time magazine called it “possibly the dirtiest American picture ever legally exhibited,” and the film was condemned for lewdness by the Legion of Decency.
The week before Christmas, Cardinal Francis Spellman, New York’s rigid archbishop at the time, pronounced from the pulpit. “Dearly beloved in Christ, I have a statement to make. I am anguished to learn of a motion picture that has been responsibly judged to be evil in concept and which is certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it. The revolting theme of this picture, Baby Doll, and the brazen advertising promoting it constitute a contemptuous defiance of the natural law.” Essentially, he admonished, it was a sin for any Catholic to see the film.
Today, mainstream movies depict sexuality in ways that make Baby Doll look quaint. But in 1956, when the red-hot charge of “un-Americanism” was being branded on anyone or any idea deemed remotely threatening, Baby Doll was more than a movie. To many, it was a threat.
For me, the deeper, more insidious threat dramatized in Baby Doll is not about sex. Yes, Baby Doll is sexy and steamy and seductive. Yet more than that, Baby Doll is sadly relevant to the systemic racism and anti-immigration paranoia still seething in our nation today.
It’s easy to now snicker at Spellman’s condemnation that Baby Doll was “immoral” and “evil” in 1956. But that same righteous judgement of sex and morality is echoed in the right-wing ideology of Christian Conservatives today. Throughout sections of our country, views of sex have not changed much since 1956. Neither have opinions on race or immigration. Turn on Fox News and witness the rise of the dangerous, white supremacist, anti-immigrant views of the Alt-Right.
In Baby Doll, Archie Lee is a Southern white male, a middle-aged, cotton gin owner whose business is failing. He is financially drowning, struggling to stay afloat. Archie Lee is a traditionalist, set in Old Southern Ways , baffled and overwhelmed by the shattering realization that what has made his family and his land flourish for generations is now no longer working. His once-stately mansion and plantation is, literally, falling apart around him. Decomposing. He is afraid. And he is angry.
Today, Archie Lee would be a Donald Trump supporter.
John Prosky (Archie Lee) and Daniel Bess (Silva) in ‘Baby Doll’.
Enter Silva Vacarro. The Italian who now runs the cotton gin across the way. Silva Vacarro is an immigrant.
In Tennesee Williams’ early years, there was a significant immigrant population in the Delta—notably Syrians, Chinese, and Italians. Italian farmers first came to America through the port of New Orleans and worked in cotton and sugar cane fields. Many suffered from the same system of discrimination that kept African Americans in poverty long after slavery was abolished. From the south of Italy, Sicilians immigrated to the Delta, settling in towns where they established new businesses of their own, in competition with local farmers. These hardworking people inspired multiple characters in Williams’ plays, including Silva Vacarro in Baby Doll.
To the white male Archie Lee, Silva Vacarro is the immigrant outsider who has come to this country to steal what Archie Lee has worked so hard all his life to preserve. The immigrant is the invader, hellbent to corrupt Archie Lee’s American Dream into a nightmare. The immigrant is the problem. Sound familiar? Listen to the anti-immigrant ranting at any Donald Trump rally. Illegal aliens are vilified as murderers, drug dealers and rapists.
In Baby Doll, the dark immigrant is also a sexual threat. Silva Vacarro targets Archie Lee’s young bride, Baby Doll, who has refused to consummate her marriage to her husband until she turns twenty in two days. This, of course, dramatizes the classic fear of the bigoted white male in America: the dark man stealing his woman. In Baby Doll, the dark man seducing the blonde virgin white girl is every racist white man’s nightmare come true.
Lindsay LaVanchy and John Prosky
But Archie Lee has recourse. He has “friends” who know how to take care of dirty outsiders like Silva.
I! Got position! Yeah, yeah, I got position! Here in this county! Where I was bo’n an’ brought up! I hold a respected position, lifelong! –member of the— Yes sir, on my side‘re friends, longstandin’ bus’ness associates, an’ social! See what I mean? You ain’t got that advantage, have you, mister? Huh, mister? Ain’t you a dago, or something? Excuse me, I mean Eyetalian or something, here in Tiger Tail County?
Archie Lee’s “friends” who know how to take care of people like Silva is an obvious reference to the Klu Klux Klan.
Silva aligns himself with black workers and asserts his right to work and succeed as an immigrant in this country. He’s here to stay. He’s not going anywhere.
I’m a dark man and a Catholic in a county of Protestant blondes —disliked, distrusted, despised. You call me ‘dago’ and ‘wop’ like you call your workers ‘nigger,’ because of a difference in blood. But I came here with a purpose. You can’t freeze me out or burn me out. I’ll do what I came to do.
No one in Baby Doll — not even the well-seeming Silva — is wholly good. Each, in their own way, are manipulative, vindictive, selfish, in some cases mean. But none of are purely evil either. They are complex human characters struggling in a drama of social, sexual, and cultural politics taking place in a specific state in our country in a specific time in our history.
But racism and anti-immigration phobia in this country are timeless. Deeply planted and tilled into the soil of our nation’s history. They are the worms and repellent insects in our national garden that survive in the dark fetid soil under rocks. Always there, hiding in plain sight, just below the surface. Plays like Baby Doll — and the terrifying propaganda of the current election campaign — turn the rock over and expose the distasteful vermin underneath — and, because we are all citizens of this country, remind us that they are ourselves.
When Baby Doll builds to its explosive conclusion, with the defeated Archie Lee hollering in anguish and being carted off to jail, it seems to be Williams’ intent to demonstrate that the era of Archie Lee is, if not over, at least changing. One of the last lines he says to the Sheriff as he is hauled away, is “I’m a white man. You can’t do this to me!”
Today, sixty years later, as the ethnic and cultural complexion of our country’s population continues to evolve into more widespread diversity, I want to hope that our tolerance will evolve with it. We shall see.
I was first eager to produce the west coast premiere of this new stage adaptation of Baby Doll — the first approved by the Williams Estate — because it offered the rare opportunity to present a “new” Tennessee Williams play never seen by our audiences.
I knew it would be sensual and poetic. I was surprised by how timely and relevant it would be.
Stephen Sachs is the co-founding Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.
Due to popular demand and sold-out houses, our critically acclaimed hit west coast premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll, adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann, will extend to October 30th.
Sizzling with sexual tension and darkly comic, this enthralling tale of prejudice, sexual politics and passion is the first-ever Williams Estate-approved stage adaptation of the Tennessee Williams screenplay. Nineteen-year-old married virgin “Baby Doll” Meighan must consummate her marriage in two days, on her 20th birthday — as long as her middle-aged husband, Archie Lee, 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, arrives to seek revenge. What ensues is a complex mix of desire and desperation, with Baby Doll as both player and pawn.
Directed by Simon Levy, the production features Daniel Bess, Karen Kondazian, Lindsay LaVanchy, John Prosky, and George Roland. Steve Hofvendahl will assume the role of Archie Lee (currently played by John Prosky) for all performances in October.
The production has earned rave reviews and audience response has been passionately enthusiastic. Adapted from the Williams screenplay of the controversial 1956 movie, our west coast premiere of Baby Doll offers the rare opportunity to experience a “new” play by Tennessee Williams. Clearly, audiences and critics are relishing the ride.
“EROTIC… Lindsay LaVanchy draws out all the sensuality and sadness, the petulance and helplessness of Baby Doll … allows us to once again hope that maybe this time romance will live up to its promise” — Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times
“BURSTS WITH SCORCHING SENSUALITY… pays exquisite homage to Williams’s screenplay” — Travis Holder, Arts In LA
“SIZZLING… Don’t miss Baby Doll!… the ensemble is divine… directed with stunning clarity” — Don Grigware, Broadwayworld
“FOCUSES THE HEAT like a magnifying glass in the sunlight… This Baby’s pedigree shows” — Bill Garry, Discover Hollywood
“SPECTACULAR… a phenomenal show that will leave your every sensation aching for more.” — Michelle Sandoval, EdgeMediaNetwork
“STEAMY… a must see for those who love the heat. — Michael Sheehan, On Stage Los Angeles
“OUTSTANDING… Don’t’ miss your opportunity to see this Tennessee Williams premiere.” — Carol Kaufman Segal, Review Plays
“WOW!… A just-right darkly comedic tone and pitch-perfect performances… ‘Baby Doll-icous’ ” —Steven Stanley, Stage Scene LA
“VIOLENCE, SEX AND MADNESS, what more could you want?” — Ernest Kearney, The Tvolution
“EXCITING TO WATCH… waves between dark humor, heat, and menace.” — Evan Henerson, Theater Mania
“If you love Tennessee Williams, DON’T MISS THIS PRODUCTION.” —Paul Myrvold,Theatre Notes
“FOUR STARS… The Fountain’s lavish, excellent production does Williams proud.” — Will Manus, Total Theater
In July, actress Lindsay LaVanchy was in the thick of rehearsals at the Fountain Theatre in the lead role of Baby Doll in our west coast premierewhen she got a phone call from her agent. Lindsay had booked a guest starring role on the MTV series Scream. It shoots in New Orleans. She would have to leave right away for two weeks.
As the Fountain Theatre scrambled to adjust its rehearsal and production schedule, Lindsay flew to New Orleans. Once there and on the set working, another opportunity suddenly opened for her. She would have a three-day weekend over 4th of July, permitting her time to rent a car and drive the 5.5 hours to Benoit, Mississippi, and stay in the actual Southern mansion where the original 1956 Baby Doll movie was filmed, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach and Karl Malden.
Eliza Kazan directing Baby Doll (1956) in the Burrus house.
Grabbing her chance to experience a weekend stay at the Baby Doll house, Lindsay hopped in her rented car on Saturday, July 2nd, and drove from the Scream location in New Orleans to Benoit, Mississippi. There was no question in her mind that she would make the trip.
“It’s very important to me to know the reality of a character, that soul, as fully as possible,” she says. “So when I had the opportunity, a 3 day window … I had to go.”
“I knew Baby Doll would not be as realized as she could be if I did not remind myself what it was like to be in that kind of heat, that kind of quiet, smelling those smells, watching the sun come up and go down, every moment swatting away mosquitos, the eeriness of being in a big home alone with neighbors not in earshot, uncomfortably hot nights, a sky full of stars, cotton floating in the air, the kindest people, and how badly one desires a cool drink of water – almost as much as one desires company after spending hours and hours alone in the quiet and the heat.”
It was dusk, the twilight sky getting dark, when Lindsay pulled up to the Baby Doll house in Benoit.
Lindsay’s photo of the Baby Doll house.
“Driving up to this great Antebellum home at dusk was mystical. Not just because of the artistic connection, but the history this home has seen was palpable. I felt like an outsider that was being called by a siren. Like every step I took could awake a ghost. That both excited and terrified me. I felt uncertain about what the two days on the property wandering around — and sleeping in the actual Baby Doll room alone in the house — would bring up for me in terms of discoveries about the character. However, I had a feeling that if I kept quiet, alert, and open I would be shown what I needed to know. And I was.”
She admits feeling thrilled and awestruck standing in the house that was part of film history. “From an actor’s standpoint, an actor who loves Williams and Kazan and that golden age of theatre and the shocking cinema that they created … I was geeking out.”
The place resurrected not only the lives of fictional characters on film.
“I also felt the ghosts of real people there, too,” said Lindsay. “My grandmother as a little girl was sent away from her family for a few years to a farm of her French-speaking older relatives and I know that had a major affect on her. So being in a place like that (the majority of the time alone) and experiencing that loneliness that causes one to spend so much time in their imagination and creating a world in your head that keeps you company was … real. And this is the reality that Tennessee knew and drew his characters from.”
Staying in the South again, even for a short time, brought home the play’s relevance for Lindsay in other ways.
“I also was in Louisiana when Alton Sterling was shot,” she says. “And then, only a few days later, I was actually in Baton Rouge. I had several shocking experiences that occurred that were so clearly derived from the sadness and frustration of that horrific event – and the centuries of horrific events. I was saddened and ashamed and embarrassed and angry, physically and emotionally, by the lack of change between years ago and the present time. And that immediately reminded me that stories which come from this part of our country need to be shared. These regions, the ones where Tennessee sets all of his plays, are a major artery to the heart and soul of this nation. And we only gaze toward these areas and their people when it becomes national news. It’s a forgotten world. And this is fatal to our country for many obvious reasons.”
Lindsay LaVanchy and John Prosky in Baby Doll at the Fountain Theatre
As an actor, an artist, the work — and its purpose — go deeper.
“It’s not about performing,” says Lindsay. “It’s not about me, it’s not about the playhouse. This play and these characters and these issues are history. It’s an educational opportunity, a calling card that hopefully stirs up something inside at least one person each night. At least that’s what I think great artistic ventures should do: start a conversation, stir up the emotional life within, cause a quest for something bigger than oneself, be a north star to the leaders who enable change, and give a nugget of purpose and comfort to the wanderers. Whether an artist accomplishes this kind of truth-giving each night or not, we can only hope and attempt. But it’s a solid foundation to work from. “
And did the weekend at the Baby Doll house help contribute some stepping stones to build that foundation?
“I only wish I could have stayed a month,” she sighs. “It was truly a special time for me, and I cannot wait to go back.”
Michigan State students with cast on ‘Baby Doll’ set.
by James Bennett
Monday night, we were granted the opportunity to host teacher Mark Colson and his fabulous group of intrepid theatre students from Michigan State University, who after a breathtaking performance of our critically acclaimed production of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Dollengaged in an inquisitive, inspiring, and heartfelt talkback with our amazing cast and director Simon Levy.
Director Simon Levy fielded a very good question: What’s the audition process like? Did you know we had over 600 submissions for the titular role of Baby Doll?
Actor John Prosky spoke about his artistic journey in manifesting the unchained, violent, and maddened Archie Lee, a character so far from his natural state he didn’t think he’d ever get the part. But when he came into the room to audition with Lindsay LaVanchy, something magic happened which brought the character to life.
The incredible Lindsay LaVanchy talked about her process of finding Baby Doll inside her. She spoke about how she had to open herself to being childlike, a quest she had undertaken many years ago but was unable to complete until preparing for this role. A typically reserved and precise woman, it took the innocence of Baby Doll to “crack her open”.
It is one of our greatest pleasures to share with and mentor the next generation of great theatre artists. What an incredible night!
This event was made possible by Theatre as a Learning Tool, the Fountain Theatre’s educational outreach program making theatre accessible to students and young people.
Lindsay LaVanchy and Daniel Bess in ‘Baby Doll’ (photo by Ed Krieger)
We knew the summer was going to get hot but we never imagined it would sizzle so quickly.
Our West Coast Premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll opened this weekend to sold out houses, wild audience response and rave reviews. The Los Angeles Times highlighted Baby Doll as its Weekend Pick, On Stage Los Angeles hailed the sensual production as “A must see”, StageSceneLA exclaimed “Wow! Pitch-perfect major summer entertainment”and Theatre Notes declared “Don’t miss this production!”
Friday’s sold out opening night was attended by the press, Fountain friends and supporters, members of the Board of Directors and invited Fountain VIP Donors who enjoyed the catered reception with the actors upstairs in our cafe following the performance.
Everyone had a marvelous time and cheered the stunning performances and beautiful production.
In this sexy dark comedy, Archie Lee has been married to a seductive young woman/child, called only by the endearment of Baby Doll, for some time, but by agreement with the girl’s now-dead father, the marriage can only be consummated on her 20th birthday, now just days away. The manager of a successful plantation nearby, handsome Silva Vacarro, swaggers in, suspecting that Archie Lee is the arsonist who destroyed his cotton gin the night before. Once Silva sets his eyes on Baby Doll, things get steamy and complicated.
Adapted for the stage by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann from the screenplay by Tennessee Williams of the controversial 1956 movie, our Fountain west coast premiere is directed by Simon Levy and stars Daniel Bess, Karen Kondazian, Lindsay LaVanchy, John Prosky and George Roland.
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.