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The Rose Tattoo

What's this? A Tennessee Williams production driven, typically, by high emotion, tears and the tension between sexual repression and expression, but with a positively perky score?

What’s this? A Tennessee Williams production driven, typically, by high emotion, tears and the tension between sexual repression and expression, but with a positively perky score? London theatergoers can be forgiven for being surprised by Jason Carr’s almost chirruping opening music on the grounds that “The Rose Tattoo” is little-known here. Happily, this flavorsome, buoyantly cast production knows full well that Williams’ play is that rare thing in his or anyone else’s catalog, a comedy by a serious dramatist that surges with optimism.

Happy endings long ago became unfashionable, usually on the grounds of their unfeasible sentimentality. What saves Williams’ love-conquers-all drama from that charge is its knowing tone.

Judged by the outline, it ought not to work. Fiery Sicilian-American seamstress Serafina (Zoe Wanamaker) is catapulted into years of intense grief when her Italian truck-driver husband is shot dead. Willfully blind to reality — her husband had been having an affair — she is sprung back to full-bodied life by a chance meeting with another Italian truck-driver who just happens to be the living image of her late husband, albeit with “the head of a clown.”

All that melodrama is made palatable by Williams’ consciously comic exaggeration of his trademark symbolism — flowering roses litter the text — the depth of the parallel sub-plot, and the richness of the language. Unsurprisingly, all this creates opportunities for imaginative actors.

Mark Thompson, the U.K. designer who best knows how to tame the Olivier theater’s dauntingly large open stage, follows Williams’ instructions for a frame cottage, but adds a revolve. This grounds Serafina’s confined existence by showing the interior and exterior of her house from every angle.

It also provides plenty of space for the squally children who race around the house, the disapproving chorus of clucking women and the interruptions when a goat escapes into the back yard. This being the National, the production actually includes a well-behaved real goat. Mercifully, the two-legged performances are more passionate.

Whether teetering excitably in figure-hugging silk and peep-toe’d sling backs, lying inconsolable in just her slip or, hilariously panic-struck, struggling in and out of a corset, Wanamaker exuberantly fills the role to the right side of bursting point.

Equally at home in comedy and tragedy, the actress finds both in a perf that keeps her onstage almost throughout. Rejecting firebrand showiness, she appears to dig her character from below, projecting earthiness with throaty conviction. She may be afraid of the neighbor “with the evil eye” (Rosalind Knight) but the fierceness of her own temper and the sheer speed of her mood changes make it obvious why she frightens almost everyone else.

Part of the depth of Wanamaker’s perf is its un-English favoring of heart over head. Yet her stormy vehemence is cunningly balanced with amusing skepticism that adds to the comedy when she meets her match in Darrell D’Silva’s Mangiacavallo.

The accent and Italian phrases push the trying-his-luck truck-driver toward the caricature of the no-speaka-di-English hero of “The Most Happy Fella.” Swarthy D’Silva goes for broke, swaggering, winking and weeping, but never straining the vulnerability. By playing more lunk than hunk, he retains an unabashed sweetness that, against the odds, is delightfully moving.

Their sparring and eventual joyful pairing is contrasted by Serafina’s daughter Rosa (Susannah Fielding) who yearns to break free, having fallen for young sailor Jack (Andrew Langtree). Although this threatens to be standard-issue, teenage male lust/female love, director Nicholas Hytner’s tightly focused, unfussy staging lifts an increasingly well-written relationship to a startling level of truthful, youthful yearning.

Although most of the other roles are cameos, the best of the cast give the characters three-dimensional life. Buffy Davis, a monster in red hair and too much green eye-shadow, is hilarious as the sly, malevolent “loose woman” determined to lift the scales from Serafina’s eyes.

The late Steven Pimlott conceived and cast the production, but Hytner took over directing when a second bout of cancer struck Pimlott during opening week of rehearsals. Their production cannot disguise the play’s weakness — its lack of subtext makes it more of a storytelling exercise than one of Williams’ great dramas — but its unapologetic warmth grows into an almost guilty, life-affirming pleasure.

The Rose Tattoo

National Theater/Olivier, London; 1,127 Seats; £27.50 ($54) Top

  • Production: A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Steven Pimlott and Nicholas Hytner.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Peter Mumford; original music, Jason Carr; sound, Paul Groothuis; movement, Kate Flatt; production stage manager, Laurence Holderness. Opened March 29, 2007. Reviewed, March 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 55 MIN.
  • Cast: Serafina delle Rose - Zoe Wanamaker Alvaro Mangiacavallo - Darrell D'Silva Rosa delle Rose - Susannah Fielding Jack Hunter - Andrew Langtree Assunta - Maggie McCarthy Flora - Buffy Davis Bessie - Sarah Annis Father Leo - Nicholas Chagrin The Strega - Rosalind Knight <b>With:</b> Sharon Bower, Gerald Monaco, Sheila Ballantine, Mac McDonald, Max Baldry, Bradley Ingram, David Perkins, Sebastian Applewhite, Sam Lanchin, Marcus Lezard, Lana Pitcher, Larissa Tasker, Janine Vieira, Jonathan Bryan, Rendah Heywood.
  • Music By: