Passion spills all over Tennessee Williams’ 1951 comic drama “The Rose Tattoo.” Some is operatic in intensity, some is played for laughs, but all of it is human to the core as it tells the story of a Sicilian seamstress living in an immigrant community on the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile.
The role of Serafina delle Rose has been performed over the years by Maureen Stapleton, Mercedes Ruehl and, most memorably, in the 1955 film, by Anna Magnani, the Italian force of nature for whom Williams created the part. It’s a tricky role, calling for finesse: Play it principally for the humor and she becomes an Italian joke. Push her pain and she becomes a bore.
Andrea Martin, whose comic gifts are well-known, displays an ever-deepening range in this new production at the Huntington. She embraces the raw reality of the character as well as the poetic ache.
In the beginning, Serafina is a life-loving sensualist, aglow with worship for her stallion of a husband, a baron in the old country but here a truck driver. When he is killed in an accident, her world crumbles and Serafina retreats into a world of illusions, sadness and paranoia, only to be revived three years later by the arrival of a different kind of man in her life.
Though not physically right for the role — the script refers often to her full figure, and Martin’s needs no girdle — the actress finds the emotional core of the woman. There are still layers to be mined and some habits to break (a too-frequent slouch of despair), but Martin’s casting proves to be a bold but worthwhile choice.
Obviously, Martin can mine any comic moment — and does so with several delicious bits, such as when she sizes up a hunk who enters her life — but these moments are well-chosen, measured and in accord with the character.
Martin is in touch with Williams’ poetry as well. Her perf is genuine, heartfelt and comes most alive when she has someone of equal caliber to play with.
Unfortunately, that is not often the case here. The Huntington production also misses the mark with an overly bright design and some wayward staging by the usually knowing hand of director Nicholas Martin.
Helmer Martin fills the stage with caricatures, arch staging and ersatz ambiance. Even a live goat (and an attractive one at that) looks groomed for better things than this scruffy neighborhood.
The supporting cast is out of control. The character of the daughter’s teacher comes out of “The Carol Burnett Show.” Two gossipy women who come to pick up their dresses and spill the beans about Serafina’s less-than-faithful husband are broadly played — and hideously costumed.
Much better is Nancy E. Carroll’s subtly accented Strega, the neighborhood witch, and Ryan Sypek plays it simply and right as the virginal sailor. But critically wrong is Greta Storace’s Rosa, Serafina’s 15-year-old daughter, a budding hothouse flower herself but here just annoying.
It’s not until the welcome arrival of Dominic Fumusa as Alvaro Mangiacavallo, another Sicilian truck driver, that Martin finds her match. Fumusa has a sweet, loopy charm as the man who is a fine physical specimen but is a few nuts short of a biscotti. This duet between the show’s leads is the best part of an otherwise uneven production, which nevertheless introduces us to Martin’s expansive talents.