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Emily Mann explores passion and race in ‘Baby Doll’ adaptation at Fountain Theatre

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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.

Emily Mann_Fountain Theater Headshot

Emily Mann

“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.)

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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.

Baby Doll at the Fountain Theatre Now Playing! MORE INFO/GET TICKETS

Fountain Theatre presents West Coast Coast Premiere of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Baby Doll’

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Lindsay LaVanchy is Baby Doll at Fountain Theatre

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.

John_Prosky

John Prosky

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.”

 

Karen Kondazian

Karen Kondazian

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. 

 

Daniel Bess

Daniel Bess

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.

 

TW 1956

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.

More Info/Get Tickets

NOW CASTING: West Coast Premiere of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Baby Doll’ at Fountain Theatre

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The Fountain Theatre is now casting the West Coast Premiere of a new stage adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll, adapted by Pierre LaVille and Emily Mann from Williams’ screenplay. Not yet seen in Los Angeles, Baby Doll premiered at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, 2015. The upcoming Fountain production will open July 16, directed by Simon Levy.

Producers – Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor
Director – Simon Levy
Stage Adaptation – Pierre LaVille and Emily Mann, based on Tennessee Williams’ screenplay
Casting – James Bennett
Previews 7/13-7/15
Opens: 7/16
Runs: Friday-Monday thru 8/28
Casting Director: James Bennett
Interview Dates: April 18-20, 2016
Callback Dates: April 23, 2016
Start Date: May 30, 2016
Pay Rate: AEA 99-Seat Code, $200 rehearsal stipend, plus $25.00/performance

STORY: 1950s, Mississippi. Dilapidated plantation mansion. Comedy/Drama. 19-year-old married virgin, “Baby Doll” Meighan, must consummate her marriage the next day on her 20th birthday, as long as her middle-aged husband, Archie Lee Meighan, upholds his end of the bargain: to provide her with a comfortable life. But Archie Lee is having a lot of problems, with his finances, his wife, and his cotton gin business. After Archie Lee spitefully burns down his neighbor’s gin to save his failing business, his rival, Silva Vacarro, arrives to seek revenge. There he meets Baby Doll, who becomes instrumental in his erotic form of Sicilian revenge. What ensues is a complex mix of desire and desperation, with Baby Doll as both player and pawn. Williams’ unconventional depiction of gender roles, adultery, and female sexuality is as steamy today as it was in the 1950s.

SEEKING:

[“BABY DOLL” MEIGHAN]– LEAD – female,open ethnicity, able to play 19; Southern; wife of Archie Lee; she’s a fascinating contradiction: childlike; still sleeps in a crib; innately sexy and seductive, but still a virgin; charismatic; turns heads wherever she goes; naïve but also coy; uneducated but smarter than she seems.

[ARCHIE LEE MEIGHAN]– LEAD – male, ethnicity, 40s-50s; Southern; owner of failing cotton gin; unshaven, dirty; often comically baffled by Baby Doll and life in general; easily overwhelmed; a closet alcoholic, which can make him abusive; a product of deep-seated Southern prejudices; desperate to be a success and impress Baby Doll and consummate the marriage.

[SILVA VACARRO] – LEAD – male, ethnicity, 30s; Sicilian immigrant who’s lived in the South for a while; successful owner of rival cotton gin; dark, the “foreigner”; attractive, sexy; enjoys toying with Baby Doll and Archie Lee; he doesn’t like to lose.

Submissions accepted via Breakdown Services and Actors Access

Or email headshot & resume to: casting@fountaintheatre.com