Role Playing: Eileen Niccolai harnessed a storm of emotions to create spark in Williams’ Serafina
Interview: Star of Shattered Globe’s “The Rose Tattoo” says playing Tennessee Williams’ distraught widow in a dirty pink slip demanded an operatic openness. Show runs through Feb. 28 at Theatre Wit.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
If you look at this wounded but willful, indeed headstrong and dauntless soul Serafina in Tennessee Williams’ tragi-comedy “The Rose Tattoo” and see nothing less than a force of nature, you’re on the same page with Eileen Niccolai, who brings the belligerent widow to hilarious life with Shattered Globe Theatre.
“She’s emotionally driven, and you have to be right out there with it,” says Niccolai. “That’s the way it’s written. It’s almost like an opera in the way it works on a spiritual and emotional plane all the way around. It’s about love and loss and faith, and longing, and it’s done in such a flush of emotion. You can’t hold back. But getting to that place was certainly a challenge.”
What concerned Niccolai most was not merely bringing enough intensity to the part; she was worried about her voice. It’s a monster role in the masks of both tragedy and comedy, and its fever pitch is almost unrelenting.
“I had to make sure I was supporting my voice,” she says. “The first time I read it, I thought, ‘How am I going to get through this?’ So I focused on not keeping my voice too high, which also helped me to get into the strength of Serafina a little bit.”
“The Rose Tattoo” is set on the Gulf Coast not far from New Orleans, in a Sicilian community, a place where appearances count and everyone’s personal affairs come under public scrutiny. Pride counts for a lot, too, and nobody wears her pride on her sleeve like Serafina, a seamstress who freely boasts that she and her perfect husband, a truck driver whom we never see, have made love every night since their marriage more than a decade ago.
But the truth is, Serafina’s sainted husband conceals drugs within his routine cargo of bananas and one night he ends up on the terminal end of a bullet. Serafina, benumbed and in denial, goes into extreme mourning. For three years, she confines herself to her house, making dresses for village customers while she shuffles about in a soiled pink slip. What’s more, she virtually imprisons her daughter Rosa, treasure of her life, who meanwhile blossoms into a teenager and discovers boys. Worse, virginal Rosa brings home a sailor. Serafina’s life has pretty much bottomed out.
Bedraggled, disillusioned (it seems hubby also was sleeping around), angry and barely holding on, Serafina of the pink slip devolves into a ball of molten distress.
Even as she pushed the emotional envelop, says Niccolai, director Greg Vinkler pressed for still more. “He kept telling me, ‘You just have to let it go.’” The actress’ confidence in Vinkler has deep roots. In 2003, they played “The Rose Tattoo” together at Goodman Theatre, he as the village priest and she as Serafina’s neighbor.
“Greg is such an accomplished actor, and this play is character-driven,” Niccolai says. “He speaks to us as another actor, and his attention to detail was very precise. He spent a lot of time with us trying to flesh out the moments and what was going on. His approach was not to get too fussy with the play, but to allow the emotional simplicity and power to drive it from within.”
And then there was the matter of the slip, the dumpy, dirty pink slip. “At the first rehearsals I didn’t wear a slip, but I eventually put one on over my clothes just to get that feeling of not caring, which is a really big deal,” Niccolai recalls.
“In that time period (post-World War II), Italian women would not be caught going to the grocery without being done up. But once she loses her husband, Serafina locks herself in this cocoon and ceases to care about her appearance to the outside world. She even goes out on the street in that slip. I remember thinking, ‘My God, I’m in this slip for three years!’”
If Serafina has all but given up on herself, she transfers all her hope and pride to daughter Rosa (played by Daniela Colucci), becoming protective to a desperate fault.
“She idolizes Rosa,” says Niccolai. “She dresses her like a bride for her high school graduation. She takes her clothes so she can’t go outside, and literally locks her up. Serafina didn’t finish high school, and she comes from a country where a girl’s virginity was more important than graduating from high school. She is extremely fearful for Rosa. As one of our ensemble members said, in the scene with the sailor (Drew Schad), Serafina becomes both mother and father. Her emotions simply go overboard.”
But what appears to be spinning toward tragedy takes a delicious turn into charged comedy when a handsome young truck driver – bananas only, he swears to her – shows up at her door and immediately responds to qualities in Serafina that no grimy slip can hide. This is Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Nic Grelli), and his bubbly spirit easily matches Serafina’s determined nihilism. When the two collide, the play changes course into a rush of laugh-out-loud, physical comedy.
“Nic was a real find for the part,” says Niccolai. “Alvaro has to be attractive, but also kind of a clown – manly but inept at certain things and somebody who breaks down and cries a lot! He has the humor and gentleness to make Serafina laugh. He disarms her. Alvaro is so naturally comfortable, forward but kind. It’s a delicate balance. That’s Nic. He’s Italian, like me, and he lived in Italy for a couple of years, so he brings that Italian Catholic perspective to the play. He was also very patient as we worked to get it right.”
The petite woman – she’s five feet tall – who seems to stand rock-like at the center of Shattered Globe’s production punctuated her account of how it all came together with frequent references to the core matter of togetherness. “We were all there to help each other tell the story,” Niccolai says. “It’s that comfort level around you that gets you through.”
- Review of ‘The Rose Tattoo’: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
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