What a difference a year and a half makes. In May 2014, when Rose premiered as a staged reading at New York Theatre Workshop, Kathleen Chalfant gave a riveting one-woman performance of the Kennedy matriarch. That she carried it off, without benefit of props, was a testament to the veteran actress’s professionalism. That and more was on display at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, when Chalfant, now coifed in a curly brunette wig and clad in a 60s’era white pantsuit, reprises the role of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, complete with a perfect New England accent, on a set design that replicates the living room of the family’s Hyannis Port compound. (Full disclosure: The talented director and founder of the Nora’s Playhouse production company, Caroline Reddick Lawson, is my friend.)
Kathleen Chalfant as Rose Kennedy
Although new material from playwright Laurence Leamer has been added, the core of the dialogue has not changed: a guilt-ridden mother forced to reflect on her less-than-perfect mothering, and how each family member, she included, has learned to cope. Still making excuses for Teddy (who among us hasn’t done the same for our children), fresh from the catastrophe of Chappaquiddick, Rose delivers a 90-minute monologue on the family, leaving few stones unturned. But with this production, she kicks it up a notch, including a poignant quote from Euripides on a mother’s pain over losing a child. Given how many she lost over the years, one wonders which was the most wrenching.
Her musings are interrupted with telephone calls from daughters Pat (in her cups) and Eunice, and daughters-in-law Joan (wondering when and if Teddy will come home), and Jackie, phoning from Greece to comfort Belle Mere. Rose confides that she encouraged Jackie to marry Ari, rather than bow to her public’s prevailing wish that she spend her life wasting away in widow’s weeds.
Rose tackles tough issues—the compromises life demands and the women who make them. Recalling the tragedy of Jack’s assassination, “I’d rather have been the mother of the president, not the president”—is but one example of a series of sorrows, beginning with Rose’s father’s refusal to let her attend Wellesley College because the priest said no, banishing her instead to Catholic school and a life of piety and devotion and, ultimately, marriage to the powerful Joseph P. Kennedy.
And that was no picnic—she confirms the rumors of his blatant affairs, cryptically noting, “He brought home the scent of other women” (and preserved every one of the love letters Gloria Swanson wrote him). She reminds us of his arrogance and isolationist views that culminated in his humiliating failure as the Ambassador to the Court of St. James, his political career shattered, and much, much more.
But the resounding horror of Rosemary’s lobotomy—“The world didn’t do this—we did this to ourselves”—still packs a powerful punch as Rose rages at Joe for orchestrating it behind her back, condemning their beautiful but mentally challenged daughter to while away the rest of her days in a Wisconsin convent.
The denouement is a raw and throbbing soliloquy laced with anger toward the men in her life—Joe, her father, her sons who followed his womanizing ways, the priests in the Church, the latter whom she blames for influencing the choices she made. But Rose reserves plenty of culpability for herself, too, for teaching her daughters to stand “at the back of the stage and applaud their husbands and brothers”, rather than encouraging them to pursue their own dreams.
In yet a final, tender parallel of the family, Rose reads from another Euripides passage, “they, full of brilliant light, one by one fell.”
Rose runs through December 13.
Opening Photo: AP
Photo of Kathleen Chalfant: Carol Rosegg
Read director Caroline Reddick Lawson’s My Career Choice questionnaire on Woman Around Town.