Briana Walsh appears in Shelton Theater’s production of “Baby Doll.” (Courtesy photo)

Troubling Tennessee Williams’ ‘Baby Doll’ at Shelton Theater

One thing’s for sure: Tennessee Williams loved his female characters — the desperate cats on hot tin roofs, the faded debutantes and all.

In “Baby Doll,” now in a Bay Area premiere at the downtown 25-year-old Shelton Theater, Williams created, in his titular character, a childlike 19-year-old: uneducated, not too bright, virginal, fragile.

Unfortunately, as directed by the excellent longtime local actor Will Marchetti and performed by Briana Walsh — who, with her platinum blond curls and sexy figure, looks perfect for the role— — his Baby Doll lacks the qualities that would make us care about her.

In this portrayal without nuance, she’s screechingly furious from the get-go at her controlling alcoholic husband, Archie Lee (played by Matt Shelton).

Then she turns instantly coquettish when their Sicilian neighbor, Silva Vacarro (Joe Napoli), shows up.

It’s hard to see, in this mannered, over-the-top performance, the vulnerable young woman, whether in control of her own fate or not, that Williams surely envisioned.

This stage version of “Baby Doll,” adapted several years ago by Emily Mann and Pierre Laville, is based on Williams’ screenplay for the 1956 film of the same name and also on his one-act “Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton.” It’s set in rural Mississippi on a couple of sultry summer days during which one cotton gin owner sets fire to another’s property, with complex results.

In a key scene, Silva and Baby Doll, left alone on the veranda, play an unnerving cat-and-mouse game in which Silva is alternately seductive and sadistic, terrorizing his prey and reeling her in, almost hypnotizing her, with the kind of finesse that her brutish husband lacks. The scene seems overwritten and in this production lacks the tension, the mounting sense of dread or inevitability or even authentic eroticism, that’s required.

And, as in most of the other scenes, the pacing is erratic, the actors go from action to action without organic emotional transitions.

This is a painful play to watch in some ways: two predatory men, two seemingly helpless women (Julie Dimas-Lockfeld is touching as Baby Doll’s elderly aunt). It feels very much of its time, and its female roles must be difficult for actresses to tackle in this #MeToo era when we want to see strong and independent women.

But Shelton Theater is one of the few local companies that regularly produces mid-20th-century classics, which is a great thing.

Production flaws aside, it’s both troubling and fascinating to see complex dramas like this one, with its suitably ambiguous ending.

REVIEW
Baby Doll
Where: Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 3
Tickets: $25 to $50
Contact: www.sheltontheater.org

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