American playwright Tennessee Williams has made multiple attempts to diagnose and dramatize the stark contradictions of Southern culture on slippages. Through such unforgettable characters as Blanche DuBois, Amanda Wingfield and Maggie the Cat, Williams expressed the powerful and unpredictable mix of longing and desperation that we now recognize as the core of her substantial achievement. When Doll opens at the New Vic on April 13, Santa Barbara audiences will witness perhaps the most extreme image to develop from Williams’ X-ray analysis of American morality: a young married woman who sleeps in a crib and sucks her thumb while grown men ogle and lust after her.
Originally conceived by Williams as a screenplay, the stage version of Doll presented by Ensemble Theater Company was adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann. Elia Kazan, who directed the 1956 film, fought censorship every step of the way, even after the film was released. Kazan insisted that the perverted central conceit of the story of a husband who agreed to wait until his sexualized bride was 20 before consummating the marriage was nonetheless central to his message. In a letter to Jack Warner, the film’s nervous producer, Kazan wrote that whatever he might change, he could not “reduce Archie Lee’s element of sexual frustration” without jeopardizing Williams’ work.
Speaking about the film’s outrageous reception, Jenny Sullivan, who runs the show for Ensemble, said Williams and Kazan probably “did a story they didn’t want to do”. Acknowledging that the material presents significant challenges for a contemporary audience, Sullivan said “it would be a trap to go towards clichés” when introducing these characters, adding that “we have to show what makes them human”. Sullivan sees the demons Archie Lee faces in Silva, his immigrant rival, and Baby Doll, his dependent and selectively childish wife, as all too relevant to our current political climate. “People feel disenfranchised, and that’s Archie,” Sullivan said.
Ensemble Theater Company presents Doll at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.) April 13-30. Call (805) 965-5400 or visit etcsb.org.