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Tennessee Schmaltz 

Playwright Williams is all sweetness and light in the sex-charged Rose Tattoo.

No matter how good a mood playwright Tennessee Williams was ever in, he never dotted every "i" with a heart or doodled daisies in the margins of his manuscripts. Given that he grew up in a rather gothic family environment, his characters often suffer from dark torments such as mental instability (his sister Rose was institutionalized much of her life), alcoholism (T.W. himself), and other demons.

But he set all that aside in The Rose Tattoo, a charmingly simple story that is essentially the master's mash note to audiences everywhere. Centered on the robust libido of Serafina, a Sicilian wife, mother, and dressmaker living in a close-knit immigrant community in an unnamed Gulf Coast state, this play focuses on the upbeat at every turn. And thanks to the two cast members who play the aging lovebirds, this Ensemble Theatre production is the feel-good play of Cleveland's theatrical season.

It may be the 1950s, but Serafina is already an emancipated woman when it comes to erotic fulfillment, having happily bedded her stud husband Rosario every day of their married life. But he is killed before he can make an appearance, and Serafina slides into a blue funk, padding around the house in a slip and pining for her adored sex machine, the man with a rose tattoo on his chest.

Written in a lyrical style that at times seems a bit florid, the first act is cluttered with many characters, including Serafina's blossoming daughter Rosa (Molly MacLagan), her sailor boyfriend Jack (Stuart Hoffman), and assorted neighbor women who jabber and gossip constantly. But in acts two and three, the play targets the duo of Serafina and new arrival Alvaro, a dim but good-hearted truck driver who shows up on her doorstep and rapidly seems focused on rescuing Serafina from her erotic drought.

Under the direction of Licia Colombi, the large cast sometimes finds itself in ungainly clumps on the smallish Ensemble stage. But when Serafina and Alvaro are alone together, magic ensues. Linda Castro is magnificent as Serafina, capturing every nuance of this robust, vulnerable, and determined woman. Castro weaves all of Serafina's apparent contradictions (she loves sex, while being devoutly religious and maniacally protective of her daughter's virginity) into a performance with so many emotional and deftly underplayed comedic grace notes, it feels like a one-person symphony.

Almost as good is Peter Ferry as Alvaro Mangiacavallo (the surname, which means "eat a horse," is the playwright's ever-so-suggestive nod to his lover at the time, a man nicknamed "the little horse"). Ferry manages to convey Alvaro's basic goodness without making him too goody-goody -- or, even worse, boring. Their act two pas de deux, complete with laughing and crying jags, throbs with pent-up sensuality. Then in act three, their offstage consummation is mistaken amusingly by Rosa as just another of Mom's fevered dreams.

The performances of smaller roles in the 20-person cast range from competent to clumsy, but Tattoo is a vehicle for its two main characters. And you won't find a juicier tandem in these roles anytime soon.

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