In The Rose Tattoo, Rayme Cornell plays seamstress Serafina Delle Rose (left) and Bradley Tejeda is her love interest, Alvaro.
Six years after The Glass Menagerie
and four years before Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
, Tennessee Williams turned his eye on an Italian immigrant community living in Mississippi in The Rose Tattoo
, which depicts a seamstress’ journey from happy wife to sudden widow paralyzed by grief. The play ran for nearly a year on Broadway and had several successful revivals, but today it’s remembered, if it’s remembered, for Anna Magnani winning the Best Actress Oscar for her role in the 1955 film adaptation.
Now on stage at the Big Top in Grand Center, the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis’ production is directed by David Kaplan, curator and co-founder of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. Working off an idea by the St. Louis festival’s founding artistic director, Carrie Houk, he stages the action as a Fellini-style circus. It doesn’t always work; having the priest briefly don ringmaster’s garb, for example, adds nothing to our understanding of the play, nor does a cameo from a real, live horse. (The real, live goat looks positively miserable.)
What makes this production worth seeing, though, isn’t only the rare opportunity to witness one of Williams’ second-tier plays — or even the realization that even lesser Williams is pretty damn entertaining. No, the real joy here is watching two actors at the top of their game.
As the seamstress Serafina Delle Rose, Rayme Cornell finds heart and soul in a part that could easily sink into cliche. Lighting up the second half of the play as her new love interest, Alvaro, is Bradley Tejeda, who made a huge impression in last year’s brilliant festival production of The Glass Menagerie
. As a beleaguered banana truck driver who explains that his burdens include three dependents and a last name that translates, roughly, to “eat a horse,” Tejeda chews up the scenery to delightful comedic effect.
Somehow, this enormously appealing actor takes a play that seems headed for tragedy and makes the comedic turn utterly believable. Watching Tejeda and Cornell interact, you understand the attraction, you understand her hesitancy and you root for that rarest of Tennessee Williams conclusions: a happy ending. There will be no spoilers here, but how nice to see that not every Williams’ play ends with abandonment or a trip to the insane asylum!
The production is staged as a Fellini-style circus that includes real, live animals including a goat.
As it turns out, the playwright had good reason for a lighter mood. When Williams wrote The Rose Tattoo
, not only was he riding high after earlier plays took Broadway by storm, but he was also in the throes of a passionate love affair. He dedicated this play to his lover, Frank Merlo, who was from a working-class Italian-American family in New Jersey. Williams’ comedic depiction of his heroine as devoted to the blessed Mother, deeply superstitious and feuding with anyone willing to fight back feels like a gentle ribbing of the man he loved.
Understanding the relationship between Williams and Merlo helps explain both the play’s inherent optimism and its Sicilian-American milieu, which might otherwise make this new production a slightly discomfiting experience. Watching the almost entirely non-Sicilian cast go over-the-top with an accent that’s become the stuff of countless parodies (thanks, Godfather!) feels almost transgressive, the sort of ethnic humor we left behind when we started casting actual Latinos in West Side Story
instead of Natalie Wood and George Chakiris. You might wonder, Are they allowed to do that in 2022?
I have to suspect a WASP writer wouldn’t get away with writing such broad Sicilian characters today. Back in the 1950s, though, the big controversy for The Rose Tattoo
came via an Irish production, thanks to the scene where our hero drops his condom on the floor. Police arrested the director for producing lewd entertainment, an incident of overreach that led to changes in Ireland.
But I digress. There are always reasons to take offense, and those reasons change with time. Written with love and performed with joy, this feels like a play you should just enjoy — and the talented cast will see to it that you do.
The Rose Tattoo was written by Tennessee Williams. Presented by Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis with direction by David Kaplan. See it at the Big Top in Grand Center through Sunday, August 28. Tickets $45-$50.