The Rose Tattoo

                     by the Shattered Globe Theatre

                     by Dan Zeff

CHICAGO—“The Rose Tattoo” displays Tennessee Williams in an unexpected light. Absent is the psychological and physical violence of his best known dramas. Instead, Williams writes with sympathy and humor about colorful characters who don’t threaten the audience with their deception and greed and general menace.

When theaters pick a Williams play for revival, “The Rose Tattoo” is usually stands back in the queue. More likely to be selected are the big hits like “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Night of the Iguana,” or “Sweet Bird of Youth.” It’s easy to understand why regional theaters may be hesitant to stage “The Rose Tattoo.” The play requires an exceptionally large cast and the major role demands an immensely resourceful performance by a middle-aged actress.

Happily, the Shattered Globe Theatre has solved both potential obstacles in the company’s superb revival. Shattered Globe has assembled a fine cast of 15 performers of assorted ages to handle the play’s 20 roles, with company veteran Eileen Niccolai in the key role of Serafina Della Rose. The production would be worth seeing for the supporting performances and for the creative staging by director Greg Vinkler and his staff of designers. Niccolai’s performance elevates the revival to mandatory viewing for any theatergoer who appreciates memorable acting.

Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“The Rose Tattoo” is Williams’s only major venture into comedy, discounting his modest sitcom “Period of Adjustment.” The play is set from 1947 to 1950 in a Sicilian community along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile. The locals have brought their language and folkways and superstitions with them to America, creating a rich ethnic stew of contrasting New World and Old World cultures.

Serafina is a lusty seamstress, wrapped up in her virile husband Rosario, a long distance truck driver who smuggles drugs beneath his loads of bananas. After Rosario is shot and killed during a drug run, Serafina goes into an emotional tailspin, losing her newly conceived baby. The narrative then jumps ahead three years. Serafina has let herself go into a disheveled slattern, living in seclusion in mourning for her husband. Now the woman has to deal with her rebellious 15-year old daughter Rosa, who bridles at her mother’s smothering protection.

Serafina’s emotional world receives a further jolt when she learns that her deceased husband had an ongoing love affair with a Las Vegas blackjack dealer. The widow’s life is further disrupted by the unexpected appearance of Alvaro Mangiacavallo, another Italian truck driver, a likable if hapless man who is immediately drawn erotically to Serafina (Mangiacavallo means “East a horse” in Italian).

Emotions are continually on the boil throughout the play, with the stage crowded with fiery-tempered and exotic characters, like the eccentric old woman commonly called the Strega (witch) and the gossiping local women sticking their collective noses gleefully into Serafina’s troubles. The theatrical mix is enriched by helpings of religious hysteria and farcical comedy.

The role of Serafina has been identified with physically imposing actresses (Maureen Stapleton on Broadway and Anna Magnani in the motion picture). Niccolai is a petite woman but as Serafina, she is a larger than life spitfire, ricocheting from sexual passion to grief to anger as her life goes from one seismic shift to another. Niccolai’s Serafina is a figure of fun in one scene and a tragic figure in another, all without going over the emotional top and losing control of her character.

Photo by Michael Brosilow.

A great performance doesn’t always guarantee a great production. Niccolai is magnificent but she gets plenty of help from her supporting cast. Daniela Colucci gives a performance of wonderful sensitivity and insight as the teen-aged Rosa. Colucci obviously is older than 15 but she is totally credible Rosa as a confused girl emerging from adolescence into young womanhood, rebelling against her mother’s obsessive behavior while the girl’s hormones churn away in her infatuation with a young sailor. Colucci would make a very interesting Laura in Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.”

Alvaro doesn’t appear until the last half of the play but Nic Grelli gives a delicious take-charge portrait of the horny and slightly goofy trucker who becomes Serafina’s unlikely romantic rescuer. Debra Rodkin is very good as Serafina’s friend Assunta and veteran Shattered Globe company member Doug McDade is fine in the cameo role of the local priest. But there are no weaknesses in the entire large ensemble.

Greg Vinkler, for years one of Chicagoland’s finest actors, comes down from his position as the artistic director of the Peninsula Players in Wisconsin to orchestrate this superbly cast and staged revival.

The production is housed in one of the small theaters at Theater Wit and Sarah Ross has done a heroic job of designing a set that presents the cluttered interior of Serafina’s home plus the surrounding outdoor area within a very limited playing area. Sarah Jo White’s costumes capture the postwar look, complemented by Vivian Knouse’s period-perfect prop designs. Charles Cooper designed the lighting and Christopher Kriz the sound and composed the original music.

In the 1990’s, Shattered Globe was the best acting company in the Chicago area. The troupe hit some bumps in the road in the new millennium but “The Rose Tattoo” returns to its glory productions of the nineties. Niccolai was a Shattered Globe star from the organization’s earliest days and her performance as Serafina reaffirms her status as one of our area’s premier actresses. Thanks to her and her colleagues the audience gets a rare chance to see Tennessee Williams in an expansive, earthy, and ultimately joyful mood.

“The Rose Tattoo” runs through February 28 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $33. Call 773 975 8150 or visit

                    The show gets a rating of 4 stars.

     Contact Dan at:       January 2015

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