By Tulis McCall
Why-oh-why-oh-why-oh? Why DO people continue to write shows like this? In Rose the ever impeccable Kathleen Chalfont plays Rose Kennedy. The time is July 1969. Her three sons and one daughter are dead. Her last remaining son, Teddy, is the most recent owner of the scandal/tragedy cup that the Kennedy clan passed back and forth between them. The week before he was the driver of the car that took a header off a brdige in Chappaquiddick. The passenger with him was Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy made it out of the car. Mary Jo did not. The details are murky, and Teddy’s behavior has been called into question. He will not be charged with any crime, however. This is 1969, and these are the Kennedy’s.
On the day in question Teddy has been out on the sailboat overnight and Rose is worried. We have apparently startled Mrs. Kennedy by showing up. We are an Irish Lay organization of women come to sit at her feet and hear her speak. Although she is unprepared, she is gracious and welcoming, and the only chair in which none of us can sit is the one that Pope Pius XII placed his derriere back when he was still a Cardinal. Since that day no other person has had the privilege of sitting in that chair.
For the next 90 minutes or so Rose answers questions that none of us have asked and talks non stop about her family and her heritage. It just so happens she has had the help bring several photo albums downstairs and these she uses to reminisce. As she looks through the albums the photos appear in cloudy projections on the back “windows” that look out over the harbor. Hers is an extraordinary story, and in the telling we do get a picture of her history, though perhaps not of the woman.
There are phone calls (this Mrs. Kennedy answers her own phone) from the “girls.” Rose reveals secrets that are startling not something one can imagine her sharing. Joan is pregnant and drinking and worried about her husband, Teddy. Joan was Joe Kennedy senior’s way of solving a problem, namely Teddy’s womanizing. Ethel’s 11 children were wild and often frightening. Pat – Joe Kennedy arranged for her to Peter Lawford, because it would help to have Hollywood involved in Jack Kennedy’s presidential campaign, which ended badly and left her drinking alone in the afternoons. The phone call from Jackie is warm and effusive. Rose tells us she knew what Jackie experienced because Joe was a philanderer like Jack. Rose fought his relationship with the movie star Gloria Swanson and lost. In defeat she began a life all her own. Eunice calls to say that Teddy is not on the boat at all but off with another woman. She is excused for her suspicion because she is the founder of the Special Olympics. When Joe removed Rosemary from the family circle, who was mentally slow, and decided she would have a lobotomy, it was Eunice who was the most affected. Rose was not permitted to see her daughter until after Joe’s stroke.
We do get a picture of a woman who fell in love and was disappointed tragically. It was a time when women were expected to stand by their men, period. In addition, the Catholic Church was unforgiving, surprise, and anyone who was divorced would be excommunicated. That was not ground on which Rose Kennedy was willing to tread. So she stayed the course and smiled for the cameras and watched her sons rise and die while she lived on. Her husband had money and means and Rose, unlike so many other women, was able to take advantage of both.
Because the premise is to trumped up, however, even Kathleen Chalfont can do little with it. This is an interview one cannot imagine Rose Kennedy every making. Perhaps she did so in private (Lawrence Leamer had access to over 40 hours of tapes), but to have her air her family laundry in front of a supposed group of women who just showed up for a social call, is beyond believing. This Rose is not talking to us, she is reciting her myth that most of us know. There is one light at the end of this tunnel, however, in the form of students attending the show. They are ignorant of the Kennedy facts and this ia a treasure trove for them.
I know theatre is a place for abandoning credulity. It is, after all, art and the reality is that we are all in a theatre, not in a living room, etc. But plays like this take the premise one or 20 steps too far. A person has to have a reason for speaking that is somehow connected to reality. A raison d’être. Without it, it is we who are tossed off the bridge and left to our own devices.
ROSE by Laurence Leamer, Directed by Caroline Reddick Lawson
WITH KAthleen Chalfont
Set design/projections by Anya Klepikov, Costume design by Jane Greenwood lighting by Caitlin Rapoport and sound design by Jane Shaw.
Nora’s Playhouse Producers. At Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre and through December 13th. www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200