The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, closing July 17

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Christopher Abbott and Marisa Tomei in The Rose Tattoo at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photograph © T Charles Erickson.
Christopher Abbott and Marisa Tomei in The Rose Tattoo at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photograph © T Charles Erickson.

Tennessee Williams, who was close to forty when The Rose Tattoo opened on Broadway in February 1951, had already enjoyed major success with three plays, and had won a Pulitzer, the first of two, for A Streetcar Named Desire. The Rose Tattoo earned him his first Tony. It rather swept them up, as the scenic designer, Boris Aronson, and the two lead actors, Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach, also won Tonys. This was a big moment for all of them—certainly a milestone in Williams’ career. Yet, when the director of the current production, Trip Cullman, says, in an interview published in the program, that The Rose Tattoo “doesn’t occupy the same place in the canon as The Glass Menagerie, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” we can accept it readily enough. Cullman envisioned his task as revealing its greatness. Indeed, the play hasn’t been revived very often. All the more credit to Mr. Cullman and to Mandy Greenfield, the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Artistic Director, for taking on the challenge and for realizing its greatness with such brilliance—an extremely difficult task, I’d say, first because of Williams’ mercurial, almost indecisive shifting from pathos to comedy and back again, and secondly because of the problems involved in depicting Italian-American characters and life not only on stage, but in fiction and in film.

I am not aware of any Italian-American writers who have attempted to show what Tennessee Williams did in this play, or, to take a lesser example, John Patrick Shanley, in the popular film, Moonstruck. A few clichéd gestures and phrases drawn from the superficial and patronizing observation of Southern Italian immigrants seem to suffice to create an Italian-American ambience. In qualification, I should confess that I found Moonstruck painful to see, but my late Italian father-in-law, Arturo Vivante, a writer and fine observer of humanity, was delighted by it. This I could never understand. Perhaps it was a diversion from the much truer renderings of Italians in Italy by Pirandello or Svevo. In film one has only to look to Visconti’s Il Gattopardo or Bertolucci’s 1900 for honest observation. It’s not as if this aspect of various classes of Italian society is a secret. I would invite anyone who was especially thrilled or bothered by Williams’ treatment of Italian-Americans to study Leonard Freed’s The Italians (Full disclosure: I wrote the introduction.) Freed, a Jew from Brooklyn, loved Italy and returned there often more than once a year to observe and photograph Italian life. However, before he did that, he photographed Italian-Americans in lower Manhattan. You will see that emigration wrought a sea-change in these people. His photographs, made in 1954, show boys wearing ties and suits to play in the streets after church. Stocky men, grave in mien, wear neatly tailored suits and their wives furs and stoles of questionable taste, whether for church, or weddings, or the opera. That is one of the problems. Italian-American communities are now historical. The superficial observation of an outsider born in 1907 is lost to Americans born in 1950, when Williams was at work on The Rose Tattoo. One could say that Arthur Miller achieved a more honest portrayal of Italian-American life in A View from the Bridge, of which a powerful, rather abstract, British production came to Broadway within the last year. I think Miller worked hard to get his Italian-Americans right. There is both the stevedore and the man who went to university and law school, who meet on their families’ home turf in Brooklyn. In his effort to construct a tragedy did Miller stress honor and vendetta a bit too much? Well, yes, I think.

Williams committed one great howler in making his Sicilian immigrants speak proper, post-unification Italian, and language which would have been as alien as Latin to everybody but the priest, who knew Latin as well as the lingua fiorentina in bocca romana. It would not have been so hard for Williams to find a Sicilian to give him the phrases he needed in Sicilian dialect. This bothered me, as I took in the play, as well as some badly pronounced words, like paúra, which is a real three-syllable word with the accent on the penultimate. A and u do not form a diphthong here. Other words were mispronounced because of the spelling in the text.

No matter, I forgot about these petty defects soon enough, as I was swept away by Williams’ story and Cullman’s treatment of it on stage. The treatment of the characters, if a bit absurd in socio-historical terms, was true to life, that it, to the experience of sex, loss, and delusion, and that is what is important. This was one of those performances in which one hung on every word—not always understandable in the problematic acoustics of the ’62 Center, however. I’ve heard many people complain of this, and Williams College surely has the means to hire an acoustical consultant and fix the defect—without resorting to electronic enhancement, the bane of the Barrington Stage Company.

In all his plays, Tennessee Williams gave his audiences a lot to look at, and that’s is an essential part of his work and its quality. Trip Cullman and his designer, Mark Wendland, understood this perfectly. Seeing limitations in the realistic sets of earlier productions, they opted for something more fanciful—images which suggested the universal, the timeless, and the humorous: a vast projection of the rolling surf and a thicket of pink flamingoes spreading across the entire stage, behind an open, spatially ambiguous interior and exterior of the casa delle Rose, packed with strange old things like an attic, as we might well expect in a Williams play. Once or twice I wondered just where the actors were supposed to be, inside the house or out, but the set gave the actors everything they needed in the way of physical objects to grasp, gesture with, or smash. A wooden walkway extended from the stage through the audience to the rear of the auditorium for entrances and exits to and from the outside world. The Gulf Coast could not have been more beautifully evoked. The effect was enveloping.

Not everything was perfect, however. There were some awkward cuts, as much to eliminate characters as to shorten the running time. In Act I, scene 3, the parish priest, Father di Leo, and the Doctor argue over the appropriateness of Serafina’s decision to keep her recently deceased husband’s ashes in a jar. Cremation itself goes against Roman Catholic doctrine. The presence of the jar of ashes needs some emphasis early in the play, as Williams well knew, when he wrote this scene. Father di Leo is also plays a central role in the important scene which opens Act II. Certain important and memorable lines end up in other, less fitting mouths.1 The priest is hardly a small role, and the clarity of the play is considerably compromised by his excision and the elimination or reduction of two very effective and structurally important scenes. In this way The Rose Tattoo becomes more of an atmosphere piece. As such, it remains most enjoyable, but there are losses.

As The Rose Tattoo made its way to Broadway via Chicago, Boston, and other traditional try-out towns, it amassed enthusiastic reviews by critics who experienced the play as basically a warm-hearted comedy, a change and release from the darker plays that preceded it. The great strength of this production is how it kept the ambiguity between tragedy and comedy alive throughout. In the last act things could have ended badly at any moment in the action.

The two leads in the original production, Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach were young and little-known when they were cast. Their collaboration in The Rose Tattoo set their careers off at a new level. Their comparative obscurity gives us a hint that the play, with its large cast, was conceived as an ensemble piece.2 However, the pair, who had acted together before in secondary roles and were close friends, enjoyed common acclaim for their work as Serafina and Alvaro Mangiacavallo. For all the careful preparation of all aspects of this production—an unusual effort for summertime theater—the Williamstown Theater Festival has conceived the production as a star turn for Marisa Tomei, who has acquired a sort of star status at the Festival. Her energetic, painstakingly detailed, and colorful performance was the focal point of the production, and, even if her Alvaro, Christopher Abbott, was not quite the equal partner Wallach was to Stapleton, she carried her weight as the primum mobile of the performance outstandingly, assisted by an excellent cast. This was notably the strongest and most consistent performance I’ve seen from Tomei. I’ve enjoyed her work in the past, but I’ve felt her performances, as excellent as they have been, have fallen a fraction short of the truly memorable. Not so here. She gave a fully committed performance of a great and very difficult role, using her voice and body with all the energy and imagination she can muster, which is impressive. Her interpretation lavished attention on movement, whether sexually charged or simply Italianate, and it was constantly fascinating to observe how she occupied the stage in such a vivid, almost aggressive, way. Christopher Abbott was just a little too handsome for his role, I thought, although the young Eli Wallach was described as handsome by reviewers, and there was a noticeable resemblance as well. When Serafina describes him as having a clown’s head on her late husband’s body, we don’t entirely believe it. His performance was excellent nonetheless—vivid, energetic, and convincing, as a portrayal of an ordinary man who finds himself enmeshed in something that might be either a memorable one night stand or a marriage—yes, marriage, since there was talk of his dependent relatives. Of the secondary roles, all portrayed at a high level, Barbara Rosenblat gave us a warmly sympathetic Assunta, and Constance Shulman could have given one nightmares as the Strega, whom Serafina abhors as the possessor of the malocchio. Gus Birney brought all the anger, frustration, and desire one could want to her role as Serafina’s fifteen-year old daughter, Rosa. Will Pullen did especially fine work as Jack the Sailor, Rosa’s more-than-decent lover. Darren Pettie hit just the right note as the obnoxious Salesman. Was he channeling Sterling Hayden? Savannah the goat was a charming presence on stage and played her role to perfection.

The Rose Tattoo was, in spite of the problems arising from its cuts, one of the strongest, immersive productions I’ve seen at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, a real sign of the seriousness and ambition of its new artistic director, Mandy Greenfield.

No one should miss seeing the show, if they possibly can do it, but they would be well-advised to read, or re-read, the play first.

Constance Shulman and Savannah the Goat in The Rose Tattoo at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo Daniel Rader.
Constance Shulman and Savannah the Goat in The Rose Tattoo at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo Daniel Rader.
  1. The social order of this small immigrant community is curtailed to its women, creating a tribal, almost pagan impression. The women, as they gather among the plastic flamingoes, and witness the strange life of Serafina and her daughter, Rosa, recall a Greek chorus, as much a part of Old Comedy and of tragedy, although in this production their associations are ambiguous, befitting the dual nature of the play.
  2. Elia Kazan, who had attracted so much attention for his work on A Streetcar Named Desire, was to have directed this as well, but Hollywood engagements caused him to pull out, and Daniel Mann took over.
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