Fresh air blows through stale "Rose Tattoo" at Williamstown Theatre Festival

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Williamstown Theatre Festival's production of Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo" establishes its voice from the get-go. It doesn't find its heart, however, until the opening scene of the second half.

Make no mistake. Passions are writ large in the emotional landscape of this play, which is set in a small, largely Sicilian-populated Gulf Coast town somewhere between New Orleans and Mobile.

The terrain, as designed by Mark Wendland, is broad and expansive. The exposed backstage rear and side walls serve as a screen on which is projected the Gulf Coast surf — gentle, steady, enduring. A runway, upon which a fair amount of action takes place, stretches from the stage to the rear of the front section of the orchestra.

This sense of airy exposure speaks to an attempt by director Trip Cullman to blow fresh air through a play — a multiple 1951 Tony Award-winner that starred Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach — that has never risen to the top tier of Williams' writing.

At the center of "The Rose Tattoo" is a seamstress, Serafina Delle Rose (Marisa Tomei in something of a hit-and-miss performance that for all its passionate expression misses a core), a hopelessly romantic woman who, three years after the death of her trucker husband, still clings to her image of him as a loyal, trustworthy, devoted, robust, virile, compassionate husband. She keeps his ashes in an urn in her living room. And then, three years after his death, everything falls apart when she learns he had been carrying on an affair for a year.

Tomei's Serafina is not the robust, earthy figure that's typically associated with this role; the "plump little Italian opera singer in the role of Madame Butterfly," Williams writes in his description of her. By contrast, Tomei's Serafina is a diminutive a wisp of a figure. But there is strength within her, a resiliency, a determination to go on that is rooted faith; belief that goodness will come her way. It's not for nothing that Serafina maintains a small shrine to the Madonna, complete with a constantly lit vigil candle.

In addition to trying to establish a toehold in the face of the truth about her late husband, Serafina is keeping a watchful eye on her virginal 18-year-old about-to-graduate-from-high-school daughter, Rosa (played by Gus Birney with a strained vocal quality that is not always the easiest to listen to) who has fallen in love with a sailor (nicely played by Will Pullem) who is doing his best to behave and remain a gentleman.

The sign Serafina is waiting for takes the form of a truck driver named Alvaro Mangiacavallo (a thoroughly captivating and engaging Christopher Abbott), who, despite the shackles that constrain his life, has made an accommodation with his life. But, as played by Abbott, the change that comes upon him when he falls into Serafina's life — under most undignified and humiliating of circumstances — is touching and endearing.

Tomei is at her most convincing in the scene between Serafina and Mangiacavallo — virtually a one-act play on its own — that begins the second half of Cullman's production (which conflates Williams' three acts into two). Less here definitely is more as Tomei's Serafina and Abbott's Mangiacavallo bob and wave, advance and retreat even as they, and we, know the certainty that is coming. The illusion of chemistry gives way here to delicate authenticity and honesty that rarely surfaces elsewhere in this 2½-hour production .

Cullman has neutralized the naturalism that typically infuses productions of "The Rose Tattoo" and moved the play closer to the poetic expressionism that runs through the earlier "A Streetcar named Desire" and 1953's "Camino Real." Cullman also has introduced as a commentator and transitioning link, a folksinger, played by Lindsey Mendez, who sings rapturously, as if life forces were moving through her.

Barbara Rosenblatt is engaging and anchoring as Assunta, an herbal healer and Serafina's good friend and counsel.

Instead of making the case for "The Rose Tattoo," Cullman's fresh take demonstrates, ironically, why the play simply doesn't rise to the level of Williams' more enduring work. This is a clunky, excessive piece of writing that trips over itself as it dodges this way and that. Williams' symbolism is heavy-handed and unrelenting.

There's an awful lot of thorns to thrash through before finding that one rosebud — a promise that never fully flowers.

What: "The Rose Tattoo" by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Trip Cullman; original music by Michael Friedman

With (partial): Marisa Tomei, Christopher Abbott, Gus Birney, Barbara Rosenblatt, Will Pullen, Leslie Gray, Constance Shulman, Medina Senghore, Portia, Lindsey Mendez, Darren Pettie

Designers: Mark Wendland, scenic; Clint Ramos, costume; Ben Stanton, lighting; Fitz Patton, sound; Lucy Mackinnon, projection; Ben Furey, dialect coach; Thomas Schall, fight director

Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival

Where: Main Stage, '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown

When: Through July 17. Evenings — Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday and Sunday at 2; Saturday at 3:30

Running time: 2 hours 19 minutes (including one intermission)

Tickets: $68

How: (413) 597-3400; wtfestival.org; at '62 Center box office


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