It has been said that casting is directing. The right cast will work out many a kink, but a bad choice in a key role cannot be made good by any stagecraft.
So it is with director Greg Vinkler’s well-acted, handsomely mounted version of what Tennessee Williams called his “love-play to the world,” which is marred by the choice of ensemble member Eileen Niccolai as Serafina Delle Rose, the Italian-American seamstress and widow who is the axis of the drama. It’s an error with serious but not fatal consequences, diminishing the show’s still-considerable force and altering its tone in subtle but significant ways.
As envisioned by Williams, Serafina is earthy and smoldering, her sensuality half-smothered by a life-denying combination of piety, pride and a protracted, theatrical grief. Niccolai, a performer of presence and comic ability, is simply the wrong type for the part, making it difficult to believe her claims of past sexual rapture with her husband, as well as her ultimate amorous rebirth when she meets hunky truck-driver Alvaro Mangiacavallo (played with disarming cluelessness by Nic Grelli). The rose tattoo that recurs throughout the play symbolizes the biological imperatives inscribed indelibly in human flesh–impulses that the actress does not fully convey, thus shifting the play’s balance between romance and comedy.
That said, the production works on other levels, capturing the script’s mix of pungent humor and existential insight. The fifteen-performer play is often described as operatic, in reference not only to the chorus of small-town busybodies who see and know all, but also to the Italian-spiced dialogue, in which every utterance is an aria. Supported by Charles Cooper’s delicately rose-tinted lighting and Sarah Ross’ imaginative “exploded” house set, which effaces the boundary between inside and outside, director Vinkler gives us a feel for the town’s fully communal life, bound by a shared and sometimes suffocating morality. The Sicilian villagers “find God in each other,” says a wise woman. “When they lose each other, they lose God.”
As usual with Williams, the theme is heart versus head and reality versus ego-sustaining illusion. To celebrate the graduation of her daughter Rosa (Daniela Colucci, in a fiery and convincing performance), Serafina keeps trying to give her a wristwatch, when all Rosa wants is space to grow up and be with her sailor boyfriend (Drew Schad). The never-delivered watch, with its mechanical tick-tocking heart, is one of many metaphors that enrich this baroquely lush comedy, the last product of the playwright’s fertile early period.
Despite the serious miscasting, the production is worth seeing, making its central point–that “everybody’s nothing until you love them”–as solidly as a mathematical proof. Having premiered in Chicago sixty-four years ago, the play remains as provocative as ever, forcing us to confront the deadness that creeps in over time. The world’s bubbly, playful chaos–embodied by the prankish child Bruno (played by the sweet-voiced Benedict Santos Schwegel)–is always just outside Serafina’s door, mocking her efforts to stop time and exert control. In the end, Serafina surrenders to the world, thus winning her own soul. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont, theaterwit.org, (773)975-8150, $33 with some discounts. Through February 28.