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Fontbonne pours a strong shot of Tennessee Williams

Opera theater has arrived a month early. Tennessee Williams' delightfully sensuous Rose Tattoo, which is enjoying a rare production at Fontbonne University, is a comically overwrought melodrama fraught with passion, desire, magic, romance. There's no sweeping music here, as in legitimate opera. Instead there are mystical winds that sweep away the past and usher in the future.

Set in a Gulf Coast village east of New Orleans, the story concerns Serafina, a Sicilian seamstress with the haughty dignity of a baroness. Serafina has no time for the intrusive neighbors who comment on her life like a Greek chorus; she's on direct speaking terms with the Madonna, and she has a husband who fulfills her every need -- every night. But by Scene Two the shady husband has been killed, plunging Serafina into despair.

Three years pass. Now the exposition is behind us and the plot begins to take hold. The bulk of the story plays out over the next 24 hours, during which time Serafina will be forced to confront the truths behind her roseate illusions.

As the mercurial seamstress who is so knowing that no one is allowed to know her, Sarah Cannon couldn't be more unlike Anna Magnani, the tempestuous Italian diva for whom the play was written (and who starred in the film version), or even the blowsy Maureen Stapleton, who played the role twice on Broadway. Instead Cannon creates her own plangent Serafina detail by detail. A seemingly instinctive gesture, like clutching at her daughter's fingers as they seek to caress the mother's hair, conveys volumes about her loneliness. A casual shrug can send an arm into combat with its own torso. It's a valiant, charged performance.

Rory Lipede provides a lovely balance as the teenage daughter who's discovering passions of her own, and Jake Branch brings just the right naiveté to the role of the young sailor who is the object of that ardor. The evening receives an infusion of energy with the belated arrival of Alvaro, a foolish truck driver who by sheer happenstance bears an eerie resemblance to Serafina's worshiped husband. Michael Orman's Alvaro is properly robust, but his delivery might benefit from a little less sincerity and a little more brio. In this production, directed by Riverfront Times theater critic Deanna Jent, the odd hesitations, broken sentences and tentative gestures Williams calls for in the sparring between Alvaro and Serafina are not yet here; hence their unlikely courtship, while always fun to watch, is not yet teetering on a seesaw.

Perhaps The Rose Tattoo has been neglected in recent decades owing to its simplistic view that one's problems can be solved by a good roll in the hay. Yet this lusty paean to the visceral life is so atypical of what we associate with the baleful author of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire that simply to see the play onstage is a revelation. This good-natured, mock opera buffa fills in a crucial missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is Tennessee Williams.

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