By Vicki Weisfeld

Bonnie J. Monte is beginning her final season (33rd!) as Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey with a theatrical bang—Tennessee Williams’s “heart-breaking and heart-soaring” story, The Rose Tattoo. Monte’s long-standing affinity for Williams’s work shines again with her direction here. A full cast of 16 adults and three children brings this beautifully conceived and executed production to life through June 18.

The Rose Tattoo, like Streetcar, focuses on two couples, Serafina Delle Rose (played brilliantly by Antoinette LaVecchia), haunted by memories of her dead husband, Rosario, and reluctant to capitulate to the outlandish wooing of Alvaro Magiacavallo (Anthony Marble), a would-be suitor whose patronymic is even ridiculous. The physical comedy between them is laugh-out-loud perfect.

The other couple is Serafina’s 15-year-old daughter Rosa (Billie Wyatt) and her recently met sailor, Jack Hunter (Isaac Hickox-Young). Rosa is determined to be deflowered, despite the mores of her Sicilian community; Jack is tempted, but unwilling to risk decades in the brig. Their longing for each other is palpable.

In Serafina’s all-consuming grief, she stalwartly believes her lusty marriage was absolutely perfect. The audience knows better. Serafina also subscribes to a superstitious Catholicism and waits for the Virgin Mary to tell her what she should do with her life. These beliefs tether her to the past and warp her relationship with the here-and-now and with her daughter.

A seamstress, Serafina has numerous visitors: a woman (Rachael Fox) who you discern immediately was Rosario’s paramour; a pair of lively women intent on a daring escapade in New Orleans (Kayla Ryan Walsh and Celia Schaefer), and a smarmy traveling salesman (Dino Curia).

Set in the early 1950s, all the action takes place in Serafina’s house and yard under the watchful eyes of her nosy neighbors (Celeste Ciulla, Angela Della Ventura, Aurea Tomeski, and Sonia Villani) the local priest (Robert Gregory), and the malevolent “witch,” The Strega (Chantal Jean-Pierre). Several small but pivotal roles are that of a doctor (Fred Dennehy) and Rosa’s teacher (Susie Wall). Offstage, Sarafina’s garden is frequently threatened by a neighborhood goat—traditional symbol of unbridled lust—which, of course continuously needs to be corralled.

Although Williams wrote The Rose Tattoo with three acts, Monte has combined it into two. This makes for a long first act and a short second one, but so much is taking place on stage, and the depth of emotion in these performances is so mesmerizing, the production never flags. She’s also moved the action eastward from its original setting near Biloxi to a more indefinite locale on the edge of the Gulf Coast, somewhere between New Orleans and Mobile. In all, The Rose Tattoo is a fine start to an exciting season!

Production credits to Sarah Beth Hall (set design), Matt Webb (lighting design), Steven Beckel (sound design), and Hugh Hanson (costume design). Antoinette LaVecchia provided dialect coaching.

STNJ productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.