The Rose Tattoo | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Rose Tattoo 

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Bailiwick Repertory

"Madonna santa!" exclaims the widowed Serafina Delle Rose, gazing upon the young man who will become her lover. "The beautiful body of my husband--with the head of a clown!" And that, says Tennessee Williams, is the face and form of true love. Though rightly called one of the author's "most human" plays, The Rose Tattoo is at bottom a parable measuring the superficial perfection that conceals corruption against the honest, chaotic buffoonery of Truth.

In the play's prologue we meet a "perfect" Serafina--elaborately coiffed, sleekly girdled, elegantly dressed--awaiting with fresh flowers and chilled wine the return of her "perfect" husband. The adored spouse never arrives, however: he has his secrets, one of them a casino-girl mistress, the other his employment as a carrier for drug smugglers, who kill him when he attempts to quit.

Three years later we see the toll these secrets have taken on his still-young widow. Serafina is now slovenly, ill-tempered, and withdrawn save for an obsessive loyalty to her husband's "saintly" memory. The neighbors mock her necrophiliac passion but Serafina insists, "I cannot swallow my heart!" To which Assunta, the local wisewoman, replies wryly: "I know a woman who drank rat poison because of a heart too big to swallow!" Even the priest is worried and advises Serafina to get on with her life. She rejects all their counsel, seeing in it the hypocrisy of a world in which sordid secrets can exist. Her daughter, Rosa, is determined to get on with her life, however--on the eve of her high school graduation, she has met a young sailor with whom she intends to elope.

Serafina's salvation arrives in likewise humble garb: another truck driver, not a paragon descended from aristocracy this time but a gauche, childlike bachelor whose name--Alvaro Mangiacavallo (literally, "eat a horse")--is as absurd as his lineage is lowly. He is the grandson of the village idiot: "He chased my grandmother through a flooded field. She slipped on a wet rock--Ecco! Here I am." He is, quite literally, thrown upon Serafina's doorstep after an altercation with another motorist--which he loses. But this ridiculous coming together eventually destroys the past and produces a new love, pure and sinless with the clumsy imperfection of humanity and the promise of new life.

Throughout, Williams shows how the sacred and the profane often keep company: Estelle, the paramour whose love the world would declare illicit, has a rose tattooed on her breast that's a replica of the one worn by the late Signore Delle Rose. Alvaro, too, has practiced deceit--his fiancee left him after discovering that the diamond in her engagement ring was fake--but he comes to court Serafina with a rose emblazoned on his chest like a holy stigma. The genuineness of the love represented by this sacred symbol is contrasted with the artifice of two customers of Serafina's, "respectable" ladies who wave flirtatiously at conventioneers from the window of her dressmaker's shop. Hovering in the background are the women of the community, who comment on the proceedings like a chorus in a classical tragedy.

Perhaps because of opening-night adrenaline and director Cecilie D. Keenan's understandable reluctance to cut any of Williams's lyrical language, the first act of Bailiwick Repertory's production careens along at breakneck speed and loses much of the poetry and subtext in that haste. (Though the characters complain of the sultry summer heat, never once do they take the time to brush sweat from their faces.) Once the actors relax into their roles, however, the raggedness disappears, and we realize that a certain amount of this awkwardness is deliberate, intended to point up the spiritual harmony of a romance that transcends mundane notions of orderliness. By the time we're confronted with the final image of that transcendence, any faltering along the way is more than forgiven.

In the difficult central role of Serafina, Karen Vaccaro displays a fearless presence and serene gravity no actress lightweight in body or spirit could hope to achieve. Darrel Ford as the Dionysian Alvaro starts out a bit uncertainly (with an accent that slides precariously between Palermo and New Orleans) but gradually grows into the charming sensual pagan Williams envisioned. Michele Gregory and Peter Goldsmith make a poignant pair of young lovers, Anne-Marie Akin a fiercely brittle Estelle, and Cheri Chenoweth an impassively earthy Assunta. The backbone of the production, however, is the cast's ensemble work. They pull together to create an environment as timeless as the fable Williams fashioned.

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