An actress embraces ghosts in this old Southern mansion in a weekend she’ll never forget

Baby Doll house 3

The Burrus ‘Baby Doll’ House today.

In July, actress Lindsay LaVanchy was in the thick of rehearsals at the Fountain Theatre in the lead role of Baby Doll in our west coast premiere when she got a phone call from her agent. Lindsay had booked a guest starring role on the MTV series Scream. It shoots in New Orleans. She would have to leave right away for two weeks.

As the Fountain Theatre scrambled to adjust its rehearsal and production schedule, Lindsay flew to New Orleans. Once there and on the set working, another opportunity suddenly opened for her. She would have a three-day weekend over 4th of July, permitting her time to rent a car and drive the 5.5 hours to Benoit, Mississippi, and stay in the actual Southern mansion where the original 1956 Baby Doll movie was filmed, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach and Karl Malden.  

kazan directing BABY DOLL film

Eliza Kazan directing Baby Doll (1956) in the Burrus house.

The historic Burrus ‘Baby Doll’ house is now owned by Eustace Winn, who visited the Fountain earlier this month  in August and was thrilled seeing our production.

Grabbing her chance to experience a weekend stay at the Baby Doll house, Lindsay hopped in her rented car on Saturday, July 2nd, and drove from the Scream location in New Orleans to Benoit, Mississippi. There was no question in her mind that she would make the trip.     

“It’s very important to me to know the reality of a character, that soul, as fully as possible,” she says. “So when I had the opportunity, a 3 day window … I had to go.”

Why?

“I knew Baby Doll would not be as realized as she could be if I did not remind myself what it was like to be in that kind of heat, that kind of quiet, smelling those smells, watching the sun come up and go down, every moment swatting away mosquitos, the eeriness of being in a big home alone with neighbors not in earshot, uncomfortably hot nights, a sky full of stars, cotton floating in the air, the kindest people, and how badly one desires a cool drink of water – almost as much as one desires company after spending hours and hours alone in the quiet and the heat.”

It was dusk, the twilight sky getting dark, when Lindsay pulled up to the Baby Doll house in Benoit.  

LV photo of Baby Doll house July 2016

Lindsay’s photo of the Baby Doll house.

“Driving up to this great Antebellum home at dusk was mystical. Not just because of the artistic connection, but the history this home has seen was palpable. I felt like an outsider that was being called by a siren. Like every step I took could awake a ghost. That both excited and terrified me. I felt uncertain about what the two days on the property wandering around — and sleeping in the actual Baby Doll room alone in the house — would bring up for me in terms of discoveries about the character. However, I had a feeling that if I kept quiet, alert, and open I would be shown what I needed to know. And I was.” 

She admits feeling thrilled and awestruck standing in the house that was part of film history. “From an actor’s standpoint, an actor who loves Williams and Kazan and that golden age of theatre and the shocking cinema that they created … I was geeking out.”

The place resurrected not only the lives of fictional characters on film.

BABY DOLL mirror bed

Lindsay LaVanchy

“I also felt the ghosts of real people there, too,” said Lindsay. “My grandmother as a little girl was sent away from her family for a few years to a farm of her French-speaking older relatives and I know that had a major affect on her. So being in a place like that (the majority of the time alone) and experiencing that loneliness that causes one to spend so much time in their imagination and creating a world in your head that keeps you company was … real. And this is the reality that Tennessee knew and drew his characters from.”

Staying in the South again, even for a short time, brought home the play’s relevance for Lindsay in other ways.

“I also was in Louisiana when Alton Sterling was shot,” she says. “And then, only a few days later, I was actually in Baton Rouge. I had several shocking experiences that occurred that were so clearly derived from the sadness and frustration of that horrific event – and the centuries of horrific events.  I was saddened and ashamed and embarrassed and angry, physically and emotionally, by the lack of change between years ago and the present time.  And that immediately reminded me that stories which come from this part of our country need to be shared. These regions, the ones where Tennessee sets all of his plays, are a major artery to the heart and soul of this nation. And we only gaze toward these areas and their people when it becomes national news. It’s a forgotten world. And this is fatal to our country for many obvious reasons.”

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Lindsay LaVanchy and John Prosky in Baby Doll at the Fountain Theatre

As an actor, an artist, the work — and its purpose — go deeper.

“It’s not about performing,” says Lindsay. “It’s not about me, it’s not about the playhouse. This play and these characters and these issues are history. It’s an educational opportunity, a calling card that hopefully stirs up something inside at least one person each night. At least that’s what I think great artistic ventures should do: start a conversation, stir up the emotional life within, cause a quest for something bigger than oneself, be a north star to the leaders who enable change, and give a nugget of purpose and comfort to the wanderers. Whether an artist accomplishes this kind of truth-giving each night or not, we can only hope and attempt. But it’s a solid foundation to work from. “

And did the weekend at the Baby Doll house help contribute some stepping stones to build that foundation?

“I only wish I could have stayed a month,” she sighs. “It was truly a special time for me, and I cannot wait to go back.”

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