Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through March 11
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Given the current socio-political climate, Laurence Leamer’s “Rose” seems even more relevant and wrenching than it did when it first played the Greenhouse Theater Center in the summer of 2016 as part of the Solo Celebration.
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1890-1995) is remembered—at least by students of American history and those of a certain age—as the matriarch of the Kennedy political dynasty, our country’s equivalent of royalty for much of the 20th century, but this 90-minute portrait reveals a woman who came to deeply resent letting her life be ruled by men. At the same time, she so completely internalized her generation’s definition of gender roles that she proudly says she raised her sons to go out in the world but taught her daughters that life is full of compromises, and it’s the women who make them.
As was the case the first time, the show is sensitively directed by Steve Scott, and Rose’s contradictions are brilliantly brought to life by Linda Reiter, who even resembles her physically. The emotional cost of all that repression and oppression shows in the things she doesn’t say as well as those she does, the cracks in her steely self control as she resorts to her rosary to calm herself after an outburst, the anxious way she rushes to the phone each time it rings, hoping it will be her beloved youngest son, Teddy.
The action is set in July of 1969, about a week after Senator Edward Kennedy, at this point the 79-year-old Rose’s only surviving son of four, drove off a Chappaquiddick bridge after a party, drowning his passenger, Mary Joe Kopechne, and igniting a scandal. The distraught Teddy, who is considering resigning from the Senate, has gone sailing, and his mother is in the living room of the family’s Hyannis Port home looking through old photo albums while awaiting his return. Her husband, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., had a stroke several years earlier, and is incapacitated upstairs.
This is Leamer’s first play, and as is often the case with one-person shows, he uses a rather awkward device to get into it. An authority on the Kennedys, having written three books about them including “The Kennedy Women,” he relied for “Rose” on 50 hours of previously unreleased taped interviews Mrs. Kennedy did with Robert Coughlan, the ghostwriter for her 1974 memoir “Times to Remember.” Leamer, who acquired the tapes after Coughlan’s death but also shaped his subject from everything he knows, gets the ball rolling by having Rose welcome the unseen Coughlan for a recording session.
While Rose’s account of her life is punctuated by proud moments, mostly because of her sons’ accomplishments, her sense of loss and systematic sublimation of her hopes and dreams, wishes and desires, thoughts and feelings comes though loud and clear in her obedience to her father, her husband, and the Catholic priests. An early instance is how her plan to get an education at Wellesley College is squelched by her father right on the eve of her departure because he objected to the daughter of an Irish Catholic politician going to a Protestant school. Instead, he sent her to a convent school in Holland for a year to try to keep her from marrying Joe Sr. The conflict between the Catholics and the upper-crust Protestant Brahmins of Boston is an ongoing thread culminating in the victory of JFK’s election to the presidency.
Rose’s marriage started off happily enough, and she joyfully recounts how Joe Sr. adored their first born, Joe Jr., but things soon go downhill. She regrets not divorcing her husband for his womanizing, but not as much as she blames him for the death of Joe Jr. in World War II. She’s convinced her son became a fighter pilot—and went on a final fatal mission–in response to his father’s policy of appeasement toward Hitler when he was ambassador to Great Britain, 1938-40. And she can’t forgive him for subjecting their beautiful but “slow” daughter Rosemary to an experimental, disastrous frontal lobotomy without consulting her, then acting like the girl didn’t exist.
The horrific and horribly sad description of Rosemary’s fate is the evening’s most moving–and one of the reasons the fortunes of the Kennedy clan have been compared to Greek tragedy, a point emphasized by Rose reading snippets of Aeschylus and Euripides. She’s lost four of her nine children when we encounter her—JFK and Robert to assassins and Kathleen in a plane crash, as well as Joe Jr.–yet she remains stoic, driven by a strong sense of duty and what’s right for the family, even as she’s beginning to question everything she’s believed.
Rose’s living room, designed by Kevin Hagan, is full of framed photos, and her story is enhanced by projections of old family photographs from the albums she says she had brought down from the attic and hasn’t looked at in years. For this production, they’re projected onto a white back wall, a vast improvement over the curtain the first time, though I still wish some were left up there longer. Phone calls from female family members—daughters Pat and Eunice, as well as Ethel and Jackie—also interrupt the monologue, and each conversation reveals Rose’s attitude towards the caller. Perhaps characteristically, she scolds all of them except Jackie.
Leamer’s respectful script doesn’t contain any real revelations, but “Rose” is a reminder of important events, especially since many younger viewers may have no idea who Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was, even though she lived to be 104. I found myself wishing she hadn’t been so completely a product of her times. If she had stood up for what she believed—or what she says here she believed—she might have changed history for the better. Then, again, I live at a time when we’re beginning to realize it is no longer enough to be the mothers of famous men.