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Review: Rose

by Photo of Paul Hansen

‘Rose’ Blooms Off-Broadway. Kathleen Chalfant stars in a play about Rose Kennedy.

Review: Rose

A Kennedy family portrait.  Rose Kennedy is standing in the back row, third from the left.

Like the British Royals,  to which the Kennedys have often been compared,   there seems to be a never-ending fascination with the family that dominated so much of American public life in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Rose, a one woman play starring Kathleen Chalfant, recently opened off-Broadway and is a detailed and thoughtful examination of Rose Kennedy, the mother of President John F. Kennedy and the matriarch of the famous clan.     

The play opens in July 1969  in the living room of the Kennedy Hyannis Port beach compound.   It is several days after the Chappaquiddick accident in which Rose’s youngest son, Senator Edward Kennedy, inadvertently drove off a bridge with a female passenger.  Ted thankfully survived the accident. The passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, unfortunately did not.

As Rose Kennedy surveyed the landscape of her life in July 1969,  it would have been so easy to give in to despair.  Four of her nine children had died sudden, violent deaths (Joe, Jr.  was killed during World War II; a daughter, Kathleen, perished in a plane accident not long thereafter;  John and Robert were assassinated).    A fifth child, Rosemary, was considered mentally challenged and was lobotomized.  And now a sixth child, Ted,  was involved in a fatal car accident. 

Despite all of the tragedy,  as portrayed by Chalfant, Rose Kennedy comes across as a women who refuses to be felled emotionally by tragedy.    The play gives a detailed recounting of the many peaks and valleys of her life.

Born in 1890, Rose Kennedy was the daughter of Boston Irish aristocracy.  Her father was a mayor of that city.   She married Joseph P. Kennedy who quickly displayed a talent for making money from a variety of sources (including from Hollywood and allegedly from stock manipulation and bootlegging).

Joe Kennedy also did an unfortunate stint as U.S. Ambassador to England during the early days of World War II where his  pessimistic assessment of Britain’s chances  of prevailing in the war seriously diminished his reputation.  By the end of the war Joseph Kennedy  was deemed damaged goods politically, and whatever ambitions he may have had for government leadership were channeled into helping his sons enter the political arena.  In this he was quite successful.  Over varying periods of time all three of his sons were considered very viable candidates for the Presidency,  with John of course winning the White House in 1960. 

All of the above is recounted in the play through Laurence Leamer’s very knowledgeable script (he has written three books on the Kennedys).   The contours of Rose’s life in some ways reminded me of Eleanor of Aquitaine in that both ladies lived to be quite old and their lives touched many of the historical currents of their time.  

Kathleen Chalfant as Rose has a subtle aristocratic presence on stage.   It is quite believable that she would be a member of the upper echelons of society, although the play does touch on the fact that the Boston Brahmins were condescending to the more recent Irish immigrants of which Rose was obviously descended.  

I thought that Chalfant’s otherwise fine performance might have benefitted from slightly more vocal modulation and variety.  At one point Rose does become quite animated and angry when discussing how she wished she had rebelled more against the masculine influences in her life.  (There is mention of Joe's philandering,  her father’s unsympathetic reaction to Rose’s plight, and the patriarchal authority of the Catholic Church).   Amidst the turbulence, Chalfant projects a woman of great substance and dignity.   Perhaps the largely steady vocal delivery was meant to project a woman who always liked to present herself at an even keel.

There are references in the play to the Kennedy family story resembling Greek tragedy.   It is apparent that the Kennedys were never content unless they were reaching for the heights.  But great heights can also invite great falls.    As I watched the play the legend of Icarus,  who dared to fly too close to the sun, came to mind. 

But what most comes across in this drama and in any study of Rose Kennedy’s life is her strength of character, no doubt aided by her strong Catholic faith.   She passed away in 1995  at the age of 104.    I think that it is unlikely that someone can survive to that age without being strong in spirit.   Metaphorically, the play is a lesson on how a flower can still blossom and thrive after having experienced the deepest and bitterest of winters.         

Rose is performing at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42 nd St.  It is being presented through December 13 th .

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