Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll opens in Santa Barbara this weekend

The play Baby Doll was one of playwright Tennessee Williams’ lesser known works, but probably the most controversial. The play, and later the film, was implicitly sexual and sparked controversy when it came out in the 1950s.

It centers around Silva and Archie, two rival cotton gin owners in rural Mississippi. After Silva suspects Archie of burning down his cotton gin, Silva seeks his vengeance by hatching a plot to seduce Archie’s 19 year-old bride, Baby Doll.

The play opens in Santa Barbara this weekend at the New Vic Theater.

KCRW’s Larry Perel spoke with actors Lily Nicksay and Asher Grodman, who play Baby Doll and Silva, about how that tension and controversy figure into this version of the play.

Asher Grodman and Lily Nicksay in Baby Doll. (David Bazemore)

KCRW: Can you describe the early version of Baby Doll for us?

Lily Nicksay: Baby Doll is an unusual character. She’s very naive, sheltered and childlike, but she’s also smart and sassy. It’s not until Silva arrives that she gets more of an understanding of what the world is and what it could be.

She really walks a line between seduction and betrayal, right?

Nicksay: Yes, but she’s also walking the line of awareness and obliviousness. It’s that naivety of youth – of not knowing quite why you’re feeling or doing something until you’ve had the experience to understand what’s going on. I think a lot of what motivates her is unconscious until events unfold in the play that open her eyes and give her a strength and awareness that she didn’t have before.

The film and play have a seduction scene in it, and there are many sexual overtones. How does that tension figure into this version?

Asher Grodman and Lily Nicksay in Baby Doll. (David Bazemore)

Asher Grodman: With the film, director Elia Kazan would trap Silva and Baby Doll in the frame so when Silva came on to her, there was nowhere for her to go. In the play, it happens with space. Her husband is gone. He’s across the road and far away and we’re in this plantation landscape. There’s nothing around and it’s just me and her. There’s no protection. On the surface, I think this play is built upon the tension between Silva and Archie, but the real backbone is the development – the “Birth of Venus” – of Baby Doll. As she develops, the dynamic shifts. She goes from this little girl that men are fighting over, to a woman who’s making a choice and is something to contend with. So, there’s tension in the surprising places for the male characters.

What was the most challenging part of this role?

Nicksay: The most intimidating part was the fact that this was a Tennessee Williams’ story. He’s the greatest American playwright, in my opinion, and has a poetry to his language that is very specific. Finding a way to approach it that’s real and honest, but still has that heightened sense of imagery – especially in the heat of the South and languid nature of southern belles – was something I really wanted to work on.