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THEATRE REVIEW: ‘The Rose Tattoo’ at Williamstown, a definitive production, not to be missed

I have been looking forward to seeing this play, only the second edition I have ever seen on stage, and my hopes and prayers have been answered, for this is a definitive production of a masterpiece that has long taken a third place position in the canon of the playwright's works.

The Rose Tattoo
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Trip Cullman

“The heart is the heart of the body.”

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Barbara Rosenblat. Photo: Daniel Rader.

In 1951 Tennessee Williams was at the peak of his powerful playwrighting career: The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Summer and Smoke (1948) were already behind him and there was still Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and a half dozen more major hits to come. But in 1951 he changed things with The Rose Tattoo. His first romantic comedy (his second would come nearly a decade later with Period of Adjustment), it told the tortured tale of a cuckolded widow who finally comes out of her self-built shell to fall in love with a man who possesses her dead husband’s body, but has the face of a fool. Our heroine, Serafina Delle Rose, has a 15-year-old daughter graduating from high school in a Gulf Coast town in Louisiana. Serafina also operates an unlicensed business as a seamstress and lives in an unstable house consumed with her Sicilian religious beliefs and a massive amount of superstition. Funny, right?

Rosa Delle Rose, the daughter of Serafina and her husband the Barone, is rebellious, beautiful, and desperately in love as only a teenager can be with a handsome young sailor. Her mother, also beautiful but more traditionally southern Italian, confides her woes, her highs, and her stories of her life to her friend Assunta, played here in Williamstown by Barbara Rosenblat. Dressed all in black, Assunta is the leader of a Greek chorus-style group of local women who haunt the lives of their neighbors in packs, commenting on the proceedings of everyday life. Rosenblat, by the way, is fabulous in this role; the ideal counterpoint to Constance Shulman’s equally haunting La Strega, the crazy woman with the goat whose counterpointed commentary on the goings-on of her Italian neighbors is hilarious.

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Medina Senghore and Portia. Photo: Daniel Rader.

So rich and complex is the tapestry of neighborhood life that Williams creates that it is hard to comment on only one or two characters, but a few do stand out. Leslie Fray is a physical opposite to Marisa Tomei in her role as Estelle Hohengarten, a blackjack dealer whose affair with Serafina’s husband helps to create the desperate need in our heroine for a new life. Fray makes the most of her one and a half scenes, and her voiceover in the final act is splendid. Medina Senghore and Portia play two anxious customers come to claim Portia’s character’s new blouse from the seamstress. The two women are masterful in their physical comedy as they play with time and train schedules and their deep need to get to another town to be seen in their finery. Will Pullen as the sailor Jack Hunter is a fine romantic figure whose deep understanding of Serafina’s insistent and motherly attitude is lovely.

One of the most striking elements of this Williamstown Theatre Festival production is the music. Beginning and ending with Louis Prima on the radio, the sounds of music pervade the play. Original music by Michael Friedman is quietly stunning as it underscores moments with beautiful clarity. Lucy MacKinnon’s full stage projections of the seashore in day and night help to maintain a sense of isolation among the crowded street of this coastal town. Even the unnamed goat, trained by Lydia Desroche, adds immensely to this sense of real life being played out before us.

Musically again, Lindsay Mendez as the folk singer moves us thematically and emotionally from scene to scene with her superb and beautiful vocalism. One of the Greek chorus, she steps out continuously to serve the play’s mood more than to comment, as this group often does.

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Gus Birney as Rosa. Photo: Daniel Rader.

Katie Lee Hill is fine as Miss Yorke and Darren Pettie is a properly annoying Salesman. The three children do their work well and keep up that sense of anaisolation, a condition from which this small town suffers constantly, for there is no true privacy in this place. Gus Birney plays Serafina’s high-anxiety child with passion and the right blend of tension and love. As much as anyone in this production, she seems to have stepped out of the early 1950s with remarkable realism dogging her presence. One of the hardest things an actor can do is present a time that is not our own but is close enough to recall and get it right. In her physical movement and her emotional attitudes, this actress brings that reality to the fore. Watching her work is like opening a portal to that time nearly 70 years ago, which people around me could easily recall and feel in tune with. It is a lovely performance by someone who clearly has the potential to go far in an acting career.

Her love scene with Will Pullen is both sweet and passionately innocent. Her fear-of-rape scene later in the play is chillingly real as well. When she accuses Tomei’s Serafina of all sorts of things, it is as though the two actresses have really lived their relationship of mother and daughter. Birney is that good.

In a cast of 25 plus a goat, Marisa Tomei is truly a stand-out. This role was made famous by none other than Maureen Stapleton, not a beauty but a powerhouse, and later made more dramatic by Anna Magnani. Stapleton had stepped in to replace Magnani who felt her English wasn’t good enough to appear on the Broadway stage. Stapleton won the Tony Award for best featured actress in a play for this role and went on to a great career, though rarely in a role as romantic as this one.

Tomei brings a quirky physicality to this role. She seems to be constantly at the start of a boiling point as she reacts sharply to voices, becomes hysterical at the site of the local crazy person, reacts with a religious fervor to all decision making moments, and falls in love awkwardly over her own objections to doing so. A pretty woman who becomes totally blow-away beautiful at moments, she handles each transition in Serafina with ease and a sense of presence and soulfulness that makes her character more attractive every time she changes her mind on any subject, and she changes her mind often. I’ve seen her work on stage before, but never have I seen her so much in command of her surroundings; it is as though she has come home with this play and her impact is so great that I can only hope she will enthrall me again and again in the future.

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Christopher Abbott and Marisa Tomei. Photo: Daniel Rader.

The man who changes everything for her, manipulates her poorly, and loves her ultimately is Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a truck driver with a complicated life, played here by Christopher Abbott. He is a wonderful foil for the inner violence and inner needs of Serafina. Abbott is sturdy, good-looking, and plays this role as though it presents no challenges for him. He is outrageously comfortable in the footsteps of Eli Wallach in the original play and Burt Lancaster in the film. Nothing of either actor is present in Abbott’s Alvaro. It is entirely his own and it is both charming and disarming and becomes a bit alarming as his scheming becomes evident. This character thrives on coincidence that is often of his own making, and Abbott’s confessions of attempted love manipulation are funnier than usual and most effective.

Perhaps the one person responsible for both Tomei and Abbott bringing their roles to life so pefectly is Trip Cullman, the director of this production. He has helmed strange plays filled with odd characters before, including works by Halley Feiffer, and here he has command of a large cast filling a large space portraying a small town. He is able, thanks to the author, to concentrate his attention on the principal players without ignoring the broader tapestry that surrounds them. With the aid of the music, the visuals – including Mark Wendland’s representative set – set at awkward angles and Clint Ramos’ idealized costumes all lit by Ben Stanton’s powerful lighting design, the director has a marvelous framework for his extreme Tennessee Williams characters.

I have been looking forward to seeing this play, only the second edition I have ever seen on stage, and my hopes and prayers have been answered, for this is a definitive production of a masterpiece that has long taken a third place position in the canon of the playwright’s works. It should definitely move up in the lists and be ranked among the great plays of the 20th century. It certainly sets a comic standard for a romance and takes the human textures to new heights: definitely not a play to be missed if you love good theater. One for the history books, in fact.

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The Rose Tattoo plays on the mainstage at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through Sunday, July 17. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the Williamstown Theatre Festival box office at (413) 597-3400, or go online to wtfestival.org.

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