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|A CurtainUp Review
By David Lipfert
In addition to a revival of Tennessee Williams's Small Craft Warnings the summer theater scene offers a rare opportunity to see the author's Tiger Tail for two more weekends in its New York premiere. This play was the final step in the evolution from an early one-acter, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1945) through the screenplay for the noted film Baby Doll (1955-56). Williams completed this new version of the story in 1977, but the film has always overshadowed it. The fact that the playwright turned repeatedly to this material demonstrates both his fascination with the characters and sense of incompleteness. The language is simply hilarious, and to catch all the humor the script bears a separate reading before or after seeing it staged.
Tiger Tail is about a special kind of triangular relationship, Tennessee Williams style. The setting is his favored rural Mississippi but the tale is at least as old as the commedia dell'arte. Here the cuckolded husband, young wife and lover come with a full load of Williams's sarcasm loaded onto each character.
Archie Lee Meighan has fallen on hard times since Silva Vaccaro has set up a competing cotton gin and siphoned off all Meighan's business. Meighan's marriage to Baby Doll McCorkle cannot be consummated until she reaches age twenty, two days hence. Enter Vaccaro, whose gin Meighan torched and who will now avail himself of Meighan's generous "good neighbor policy" to process his cotton. Latin flare enables Vaccaro to score with Baby Doll, and by the end a defeated Meighan is led off to jail for disturbing the peace.
Williams offers near caricatures of Southern types, but an attractive vulnerability saves them from complete absurdity. Overweight redneck Archie Meighan is an unfortunate combination of naÌve, stupid and myopic, so that he only gradually realizes he has been had. A generation older than Baby Doll (and in this production a head taller), he deeply adores her in rather crude ways. Vaccaro's qualities are the opposite of Meighan's: dark-complexioned, cocky, short and wiry. Better educated than the Mississippi natives he is also far more clever and has no qualms about exploiting a situation to his advantage. Baby Doll's fascination with him is muted by her utter self-involvement so he must force the situation to get his way. (A careful reading between the lines gives the distinct impression that Baby Doll's new-found enjoyment with Vaccaro is remarkably close to what is usually called S&M.)
The other prominent character, Aunt Rose Comfort McCorkle, stirs up the comic side just when the others are get too intense. One addition to the cast in this version, earthy Black Madame and liquor purveyor Ruby Lightfoot, offers old-time folk savvy (an approach Meighan rejects), but otherwise remains peripheral to the plot.
Casting is the principal strength of this production. Shae D'lyn fully captures Baby Doll's languid take on life, Her blonde soft curls and carefully studied child-bride speech round out the image. Even though he looks a bit young for Archie Lee Meighan, Joseph Whipp does a fine job, even getting red in the face at his character's slightest frustration. Silas Weir Mitchell does not look much like a Silva Vaccaro, but he achieves a consistent intensity with Baby Doll. As Aunt Rose Comfort McCorkle, Jane Cecil plays her comic lines to the hilt. Sybyl Walker gives Ruby Lightfoot's Act II song a nice sensuality.
Were it not for Harry Mastrogeorge's TV-scale direction this might have been a smash. There are long static periods in this production that might work well in a camera close-up but turn out deadly onstage. It was particularly galling to see the actors frequently turning their backs to the audience while delivering key dialogue. Lengthy inaudible segments only compounded the problem. The divide between inside and outside on the Meighan house set was unclear. Mastrogeorge accepted the characters at face value, and gave little play to them as comic types with significant inner lives-a frequent enough occurrence in William's plays. If anything, Meighan was portrayed as too intelligent and Vaccaro as too earnest. Nearly all of the time the actors had hands firmly at their sides, robbing Vaccaro of his Sicilian gestures and leaving Aunt Rose without any way to suggest how hard of hearing she really was.
Greg Macpherson gave a superbly naturalistic lighting scheme, but it was unfortunate that Baby Doll could hardly be seen while taking refuge from Vaccaro in the dark attic. Sound design, costumes and the unit set fit the bill nicely.
In spite of the shortcomings, anyone that has more than a passing interest in Tennessee Williams should catch this production, because it might be a long time before it shows up again.
Links For other Williams shows we've reviewed and an overall view of his career and a book list check out our backgrounder on the playwright