The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, is currently presenting the Chicago premiere of Kennedy expert/biographer Laurence Leamer’s “Rose” through September 25th. Directed by Steve Scott, the play, based upon 50 hours of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s recorded memoirs and Leamer’s exhaustive and intimate knowledge of the Kennedy family, stars 6-time Jeff Award winner Linda Reiter. Reiter gives a luminous, incandescent performance as an indomitable survivor, upheld by a strong faith, concealing a fierce intelligience under trained rectitude, fully capable of inspiring and sustaining the remarkable family she produced.
Although this is a one-actor performance, set in a parlor at the senior Kennedy’s home in Hyannis Port in 1969, the reminiscences of this matriarch, called forth by memory and photos, are strong and poignant enough to call forth the entire family- especially those long departed. Many of those still alive call her on the telephone during the drama- an extremely clever plot device that enables the work to open up and include the absent character while at the same time giving us a glimpse of how important this mother remained to her family. The different ways she relates to these callers and her remarks about them afterwards further allows the audience insights into her complex mind and the sincerely loving yet steely quality of her relationships.
When Rose tells us “I saw everything but said nothing”, it is clear she remembered it all. Memory is a complex phenomena- the stronger the emotions felt at the time of the events, the sharper the memory will be. Here, although Rose willingly admits to a lack of outward affectionate gestures (“I probably didn’t hug my children after they were 2 or 3 years old”), it is obvious that she was brimful of motherly affection and concern. Indeed, the immediate “plot” is her worry about Teddy in the wake of Chappaquiddick- she is expecting him, looking for him constantly over the Cape, hoping each time the phone rings that it is he. When he does call, we really see the stuff that she is made of, as she encourages him to do the right thing, to face up to the tragedy, to go on in public service. Although Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. is supposed to be upstairs incapable of speech after a stroke, and is largely credited for promoting his ambitions through the persons of his sons, it is Rose we see at the center of the family, where she doubtlessly always was, providing a strong moral compass.
The stage is very well-set by scenic designer Kevin Hagan. The furniture is simple and beautifully crafted. There is a credenza which holds her shimmering rosary, a desk that contains Joe’s box of love-letters from Gloria Swanson, the telephone table, a settee, and several “occasional” tables with masses of authentic family photographs which augment the ones in the albums on the coffee table. Thanks to lighting designer Cat Wilson, many of the photos are reflected large on the back of the stage (where curtains are drawn over the ocean and against the papparazi) and the instantly recognizable faces of the legendary family members are demonstrated in their young untouched years. Wedding portraits are scattered about –this reviewer glimpsed the famous radiant portrait of Ethel Skakel on Bobby’s arm. The sizable diamond on Rose’s hand flashed throughout the theater as she tripped lightly in a beautiful cotton sweater, off-white slacks, AGL flats –kudos to costume designer Rachel Lambert-and pearls the size of gumballs, her coiffure strikingly reminiscent of the 60’s.
In a non-harsh and perfectly modulated Boston accent, Reiter delivered to us a many-faceted woman, filled with an enormous anger at the times, the fates, and the Patriarchy. We learn that her father kept her out of Wellesley, sending her to a convent college in Europe, hoping to keep her out of Joe’s arms. It seems very few women could resist the Kennedy men, and how their wives suffered for it! Although Rose laments that “All my life I have obeyed men”, and admits to preferring her last surviving son over her daughters, “My daughters are nice but I grow tired of them”, she also gives credit where it is due, telling us “Jackie saved my son”, referring to Bobby.
Everyone knows about the tragedies of the car crashes and the assassinations, and most people have some idea of the fate of the special-needs daughter, Rosemary, but here, for the first time, Leamer shines the light of remorseful day on the terrible tragedy enacted upon this stunningly lovely young woman. I won’t spoil it’s stark sting and Reiter's multi-layered performance by recounting it here. Suffice it to say while Rose asks “Why it came to this, to the dark enveloping waters of Chappaquiddick” and seeks solace and succor in reading the Greek tragedies, recommending to us, as Jackie did to her, “The Greek Way” by Edith Hamilton, of Rosemary she says “This was something we did to ourselves”.
The play is absorbing, brilliantly conceived and beautifully acted. It is at once a history lesson and a psychological explication of an era. It’s highly recommended.
For other great plays in The Greenhouse Theater’s “Solo Celebration!” series, go to the Greenhouse Theater website.
All photos courtesy of Johnny Knight