Goodman Theatre

Father De Leo: You’re not a respectable woman.

Serafina: No, I’m not a respectable; I’m a woman.

–Tennessee Williams, The Rose Tattoo

The Rose Tattoo is back in Chicago, where it first flowered. Tennessee Williams’s “love-play to the world” is enjoying a terrific revival at the Goodman, a block from the place the work premiered December 29, 1950–the Erlanger Theatre–before heading to Broadway. Under pressure to follow up on the success of his melancholy Glass Menagerie and tragic Streetcar Named Desire, Williams stuck with a southern setting in The Rose Tattoo, which takes place in a village on the coast between New Orleans and Mobile. And, as in Streetcar, he focused on a woman trapped by the conflict between social convention and religious morality on one hand and intense erotic longing on the other.

But the play’s broad, romantic comedy marks a distinct change in tone. Instead of a fluttery southern belle like Amanda Wingfield or Blanche DuBois, Williams created a robust, raucous Sicilian-American earth mother, Serafina delle Rose, whose outbursts and wild mood swings are comical even though they express deep-seated pain. Like Blanche, Serafina lives on the brink of despair, wounded by the loss of the only man she ever loved; a blowsy recluse, she spends most of her time in a raggedy black slip praying for “a sign” from a cheap plaster statue of the Virgin Mary, which guards the urn holding her husband’s ashes. Like Amanda, Serafina’s bitter loneliness has made her a domineering mother whose efforts to protect her offspring backfire. But unlike so many other figures in Williams’s pantheon of crazy ladies, Serafina triumphs over her sorrows, finding the strength (and the right man) to pull her back from the abyss.

Serafina’s brush with madness is precipitated by the death of her husband, a truck driver named Rosario killed while smuggling for an Italian crime family. The unfaithful but beautiful Rosario–“Valentino with a mustache,” one character calls him–bore on his chest the tattoo of a rose, which magically transferred to Serafina’s breast one night as a sign that she’d conceived. But the shock of Rosario’s death causes her to miscarry, and she transfers all her maternal instincts to her 15-year-old daughter Rosa–“a twig off the old rosebush” who’s quickly blossoming into a desirable young woman, to Serafina’s dismay. While fretting over Rosa’s relationship with a hot-blooded young sailor named Jack Hunter, Serafina meets Alvaro Mangiacavallo–a young truck driver who has the same muscular, compact build as her late husband but “the face of a clown.” Athletic yet endearingly awkward, the feisty, impulsive Alvaro pursues Serafina in a turbulent courtship.

A commercial hit in its day, The Rose Tattoo hasn’t sustained the lasting critical admiration of Williams’s darker dramas. It’s overlong and episodic, especially in the first half, before Alvaro appears–his late entrance is a major structural flaw. And the play’s insistent rose symbolism will strike some as heavy-handed. But others will be swept up, as I was, by the rapturous feeling expressed in Williams’s obsessive rose imagery, which gives the play a feverish, dreamlike quality recalling Fellini’s great film Amarcord.

Director Kate Whoriskey embraces that quality in her production, which eschews traditional poetic naturalism in favor of a hallucinatory magic realism. Key scenes are played as ritual: a processional dance of mourning (choreographed by Randy Duncan), a martial-arts display in which Alvaro does battle with a black goat (dancer Sean Blake wearing horns), a wild attack by Serafina’s raven-haired Sicilian neighbors (Eileen Niccolai, Elizabeth Laidlaw, and Catherine Smitko) upon Rosario’s blond girlfriend (Cynthia Von Orthal) like Furies attacking an intruder, and the joyful climax, in which Serafina literally climbs a mountain to reach Alvaro, like Eurydice returning from the land of the dead.

Maureen Stapleton–who created the role of Serafina–describes the character in her memoir, A Hell of a Life, as someone who “runs the gamut from rage to love.” And east-coast actor Alyssa Bresnahan plays her here as a force of nature, volcanic as Vesuvius. Though the role was written for (and inspired by) Italian actress Anna Magnani (who eventually played it on-screen), the loving and nurturing, jealous and violent Serafina is also Williams’s portrait of his own passions at their best and worst, their most anguished and most ridiculous. In Bresnahan’s vibrant portrayal, the wildest humor comes from the deepest sorrow.

John Ortiz (previously seen at the Goodman in Peter Sellars’s controversial high-concept The Merchant of Venice) makes Alvaro a charming little stud who tames his tempestuous lover through good-natured determination. The character was inspired by Williams’s longtime companion Frank Merlo; indeed, the name Mangiacavallo, which means “eat a horse,” is a ribald reference to Merlo, whom Williams called his “little horse.” (Williams biographer Donald Spoto writes that the nickname was inspired by Merlo’s “handsome, equine features,” but I suspect the anatomical analogy didn’t end with his face.)

Bresnahan and Ortiz’s vitality is touchingly and amusingly mirrored by the puppyish passion of Meredith Zinner and Ian Brennan as Rosa and Jack. The supporting cast also includes Greg Vinkler as the prim priest who denounces Serafina’s preservation of Rosario’s ashes as “idolatry” and Mike Nussbaum in drag as the Strega, a neighborhood witch whose “evil eye” foreshadows Rosario’s death.

Designers Derek McLane (set) and Robert Wierzel (lights) carry Williams’s rose references to an exuberant extreme. Serafina’s cottage is a tent constructed of parachute silk and illuminated with tiny Italian lights and a vigil candle in a small ruby-red cup. The effect suggests a circus (echoing Williams’s request that the cottage look like a carnival booth) but also baldly suggests spread labia and the womb, underscoring the play’s preoccupation with birth and its sexual candor (which got it banned from the 1957 Dublin Theatre Festival). Instead of the rose-colored carpet Williams specified, the floor is covered with rose petals, and some of the dressmaker’s dummies Williams described in Serafina’s home hang surrealistically in the sky. Costume designer Birgit Rattenborg Wise amplifies the themes of life and death by juxtaposing seemingly endless shades of red with stark black; she expresses purity in the starchy white of Rosa’s graduation dress and Jack’s tight bell-bottoms.

The Rose Tattoo is less a nuanced psychological portrait than a poetic pageant, a ritual of death and rebirth populated by elemental, almost archetypal characters and suffused by both Catholic and pagan mysticism. The Goodman’s revival revels in this mythic quality, making a dynamic evening of theater out of Williams’s rich, indulgent celebration of sensuality and emotional excess.

The January 11 death of composer and teacher William Russo caught many of his friends by surprise despite his two-year battle with cancer and recent bout of pneumonia. Bill seemed to be someone who would live forever, the eternal bon vivant. At least he went out on a high note, admired as an elder statesman of big-band jazz (he was Stan Kenton’s arranger in his early 20s and most recently led the Chicago Jazz Ensemble) and a composer of orchestral works. The acclaim he received in his 60s and 70s must have been sweet considering the way his work had earlier been dismissed as an unsuccessful hybrid.

I met Bill in 1970, at a time when his disaffection with the jazz world had led him to pursue rock-theater projects. The Chicago Free Theater, which he directed, was a seminal troupe in the first wave of the off-Loop scene. It specialized in “rock cantatas” and jazz operas composed by Bill and his proteges:The Civil War– which linked the martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy–became a touchstone of the antiwar movement; Liberation imagined encounters between Tom Paine, Che Guevara, and Socrates; The Bacchae featured nudity and violence; and Aesop’s Fables (which also ran off-Broadway) was a family-oriented charmer that combined story theater with rock ‘n’ roll. Bill moved away from rock toward a more classical style in the 1974 Isabella’s Fortune, an off-Broadway commedia dell’arte opera for which I wrote the libretto; Bill and I also collaborated on a piece for children, The Golden Bird, which premiered at Orchestra Hall in 1984.

While composing was Bill’s forte (a word he insisted on pronouncing correctly, as “fort,” to distinguish it from the Italian word for “loud”), he was inspired by the modernist renaissance of 1920s Paris to promote the fusion of music, theater, dance, and the visual arts–and he threw in plenty of free love for good measure. Ultimately Bill’s most important contribution was the sense of community he fostered among creative people in all fields. I was blessed to know him, and Chicago was blessed to have him as its native son.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.