Tennessee Williams is noted for his mastery of drama. He is especially good at creating women who find themselves in impossible situations but struggle through them with melancholy-tinged grace: Laura and Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie; Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire, to name a few.
In his 1951 play The Rose Tattoo, now on display at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, he creates another such woman, Serafina Delle Rose, and shows a certain gift for comedy as well.
Serafina (Antoinette LaVecchia), a seamstress, loses her truck driver husband Rosario at the start of the play. She goes into deep mourning, refusing to leave her house, keeping her husband’s ashes in an urn on her home shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and keeping a tight rein on her teenage daughter, Rose (Billie Wyatt).
Rose has fallen in love with a friend’s brother, sailor Jack Hunter (Isaac Hickox-Young), who she met at a school dance. Serafina’s chance meeting with another truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Anthony Marble), begins an improbable courtship.
Williams’ humor is mostly grounded in stereotypes of Sicilians living on the Gulf Coast of the United States, in a village “between New Orleans and Mobile,” no doubt acceptable for the audiences of the early 1950s. Williams’ comedic talent in this play is mired in such stereotypes, unfortunately, and finds him going for the cheap laugh instead of the observational comic moments found in his dramas and in his later comedy Period of Adjustment. Also, in many points in the play, certain items meant to be humorous through repetition only appear tedious, making Williams seem uncertain in his foray into comedy.
In her last season as Artistic Director, Bonnie J. Monte, while guiding her cast through the paths of the play, seems unable to raise the comedic level. This in turn affects the acting of the four leads — LaVecchia, Marble, Wyatt, and Hickox-Young — making them lose any grounding in reality there might have been in their performances and thus preventing them from presenting fully-rounded characters.
However, this makes the more two-dimensional supporting characters more interesting to watch: Chantal Jean-Pierre as the Strega, the town witch; Robert Gregory as the imperious Father de Leo; and Kayla Ryan Walsh and Celia Schaefer as two townswomen of questionable morality heading for a Shriner’s convention. Rachael Fox provides dramatic tension as local floozy Estelle Hohengarten, gaining audience sympathy in her confrontations with Serafina and the other local Sicilian women as the play progresses.
The excellent set design by Sarah Beth Hall depicts the interior of the run-down house where the Delle Rose women live and the porch and yard outside, and is atmospherically lit by Matt Webb, with the sounds of the world outside produced by Steven Beckel. Hugh Hanson’s costumes fit the time and place, running the gamut from the plain work dresses of the townswomen to the beautifully designed graduation dresses made by Serafina.
The Rose Tattoo gives us a rarely-seen glimpse of Tennessee Williams writing in a comedic mode. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has made an interesting choice in their opening play of this, Bonnie J. Monte’s final season as Artistic Director. Go see this rarely-revived play before its all-too-brief run ends!
The Rose Tattoo is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Theatre on the grounds of Drew University in Madison through June 18, 2023. For more information, including ways to save on tickets, or to purchase tickets, go to shakespearenj.org or call 973-408-5600.