Where: Shattered Globe at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Feb. 28
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Tennessee Williams was hardly known for happy endings, but with “The Rose Tattoo” he came pretty close. While the semi-operatic, typically symbolic play is drenched in common Williams themes like loss and self-delusion, it also offers the hope of rebirth, or in contemporary parlance, the human ability to move on.
First produced on Broadway in 1951 starring Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach but better known from the 1955 film with Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster, “The Rose Tattoo” is set in a small Gulf Coast town (somewhere between New Orleans and Mobile) populated mostly by Sicilians. The central character is Serafina Delle Rose (Eileen Niccolai), a deeply religious yet superstitious seamstress with a teenage daughter, Rosa (Daniela Colucci). Most of all, Serafina is intensely proud that she and her unseen husband, Rosario, still are passionately in love. A baron turned trucker in America, he carries loads of bananas but supplements his income, unbeknownst to Serafina at first, by hauling illegal drugs.
When we first see Serafina, she confides to her friend Assunta (Debra Rodkin) that she knows she’s pregnant because she felt the image of her husband’s rose tattoo emblazoned on her breast. But her joy soon turns to grief when Rosario is killed. She loses the baby, becomes overly protective of the sexually budding Rosa, and sinks into a deep depression, hunching over her sewing machine dressed only in a slip. Defying the Catholic church, she’s also had her husband cremated and keeps his ashes on a shrine to the Virgin Mary in her living room.
Repeatedly bothered by the witchy Strega (Daria Harper), a mischievous boy (sweet-voiced Benedict Santos Schwegel), and a chorus of nosy neighbors who comment on her behavior, Serafina is in for several shocks on the day of her daughter’s high-school graduation. She learns that Rosa is in love with a sailor, Jack Hunter (Drew Schad), and that her dead husband had an affair with Estelle Hohengarten (Rachel Sledd), something she steadfastly refuses to believe despite evidence that goes well beyond the local gossip. In addition, another banana-truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Nic Grelli), shows up—almost like the sign she’s been begging the Virgin for. She sees him as having “the body of my husband” with “the head of a clown,” and he ignites her lust and tenderness even if they argue a lot.
Staging “The Rose Tattoo” is no easy task, especially given the large cast, and Shattered Globe’s main asset is Niccolai’s Serafina. She may not have the earthy sensuality of Magnani, but she uses her small stature to good advantage as a feisty, outspoken woman who won’t take crap from anyone. Her dialogue is peppered with Italian, and she maintains a convincing accent without coming across as a stereotype, a real accomplishment considering that Williams’ characters are stereotypical, and the way they act is highly melodramatic.
Grelli matches Niccolai nicely as Mangiacavallo. He takes the clown reference as his cue, behaving like a clumsy, silly buffoon crossed with a commedia dell’arte figure, yet like the woman he hopes to win, we can see that he has a good heart.
As the frustrated Rosa, who bridles at the restrictions placed on her and is embarrassed by the mother she nonetheless loves, Colucci is lovely and comparatively low key. The love scene between her and Schad’s Jack Hunter doesn’t ring true at all — with the overblown lines, I don’t know how it could — but when Serafina makes Jack kneel down before the Virgin and swear he’ll respect her daughter’s innocence, Schad plays it sincerely rather than like he’s indulging a crazy mother, a nice choice that puts a positive spin on the romance.
In general, Greg Vinkler’s direction seems to favor a humanism that softens the harsher side of Williams. On the down side, though, some of the minor performances and group scenes remind me of competent college productions.
Initially, I found the orientation of Sarah Ross’s detailed set disturbing, but the way it blurs the barrier between indoors and out is interesting, as is the idea of turning the audience sort of into neighbors who are observing from odd angles. Charles Cooper’s lighting sometimes adds subtle rose tones. Costume designer Sarah Jo White had gone to great lengths for a demanding show, but a few of the outfits needed repairs the night I was there.
Overall, “The Rose Tattoo” is worth seeing, mostly for Niccolai’s performance but also because it’s not produced that often.