A PROFILE IN MOTHER COURAGE
A catholic confession (in the larger sense), Laurence Leamer’s Rose portrays the matriarch of America’s most political dynasty—a family as cursed as Aeschylus’ House of Atreus—as a tough-loving protector. Over 90 minutes we meet a resilient and formidable lady, enduring but regretting the sacrifices she made for three dead sons and one cold husband. Dubbed a “Countess of the Holy See,” our devout Papist was also, though we both desire and distrust it, American royalty. Leamer’s searing glimpse into a way of life—and death—is taken from 40 hours of exclusive interviews that he conducted while ghost-writing the autobiography of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1890-1995!). Superbly helmed by Steve Scott, this Chicago premiere, part of Greenhouse Theater Center’s “Solo Celebration” series, delivers the ultimate inside look at a casualty as much as a shaper of history.
Charmingly, cunningly and, ultimately, devastatingly performed by Chicago treasure Linda Reiter (who resembles both the historical mother and, strangely, Lady Bird Johnson), Rose presides over the portrait-laden parlor of her 15-room Hyannis Port manse, wearing pearls, tending her husband (damaged by a stroke eight years before), and waxing worried over her last surviving son. It’s 1969 and an unseen Teddy considers resigning from the Senate after having crashed his car in the Chappaquiddick creek and drowned his secretary/mistress Mary Jo Kopechne. As so often before, Mother must provide advice and absolution, not to mention damage control.
While seeking to protect this latest self-destructive Kennedy from the reporters surrounding the compound, Rose hesitantly but honestly responds to questions from the off-scene ghost writer, amid phone calls from worried loved ones (like irritating Eunice Kennedy Shriver, dipsomaniacal Joan Kennedy, and finally a contrite Teddy). Throughout this latest ordeal, staunch Rose exudes the unflinching rectitude of a true believer. (Jackie Kennedy said that her mother-in-law would “rather say a rosary than read a book.”) She has long learned to live with others’ lies. But in a candid moment she agonizes over what she and her daughters could have become if they had gotten the latitude and confidence of the men they served. (What a highly conditional admiration she would have for Hillary Clinton today!)
Her free-associating remembrances, stimulated by snapshots (also projections) from many family albums, reveal a stoic and tenacious survivor. This thorny Rose mistrusts public—and even private—emotion: She has had to hide her feelings for so long that they’ve all but atrophied. She recalls her powerful father “Honey” Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston and defensively “lace curtain” Irish. This tyro disapproved of her suspiciously romantic interest in and marriage to Joseph Kennedy in 1914. (He had “nice legs.”) Intent on “besting the Brahmins,” this driven mover and shaker with mob ties—a second oppressive father–schemed more than dreamed. His ambassadorship to pre-war England would tarnish his clan with his Roosevelt-defying isolationism as much as the notoriety of his bootlegger past. A lustful Lothario (including a notorious affair with Gloria Swanson), Joseph Sr. almost drove Rose to divorce. But, as so often, she exchanged happiness for the prospect of “love, family, belonging.”
Her Spartan sympathies were fueled by separate standards for the sexes which she imposed on nine children: “[My daughters’] brothers were raised to go out into the world. But I would rather have been the mother of a president than the president, and that is how I raised my daughters. I taught them that life is a matter of compromises. And it is women who make them.” The four boys’ chaotic childhood was a skylarking tumble of touch football, sailing off the cape, horse riding, and grooming for political prominence. Family mattered at least as much as origin, class, party, even country.
With stiff upper lip, indomitable patience, a contagious sense of duty, and pill-popping, Rose pursued paths set by the men around her. To her eternal regret she allowed her husband to force a disastrous 1941 lobotomy on shy, slow Rosemary, reducing her to a lifelong infancy after which the execrable father denied Rosemary’s very existence. This triggers the most wrenching revelation of the evening: We’re forced to witness Rosemary singing a song as the barbaric surgeon’s knife destroys her brain. (Rose would be institutionalized from 1949 until a merciful death in 2005.) The ever vigilant mother tells how she attempted to rescue Kathleen from an affair with an aristocratic Protestant, only to lose both to a plane crash in 1948. An earlier tragedy in 1944 would kill her firstborn and favorite son Joseph Jr., an aviator in World War II who enlisted in part to atone for his father’s failure to serve in the war before.
Of course, we learn how Rose coped with the very public assassinations of Jack and Robert, resigned like Queen Hecuba after the fall of Troy, never betraying rancor against the murderers. Now this 80-year-old matron must rally behind her fallen Teddy, who still has 40 more years to prosecute his sterling liberalism.
Linda Reiter feelingly depicts a power parent who put the labor in love. Both firm and fragile, with grit and gratitude, her Rose by any other name would be as strong. At the very end Reiter’s magnificent and literal apostrophe to the Kennedy constellation above–from which so many stars had fallen–is a captivating catharsis after a shattering confession.
part of Solo Celebration!
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
ends on September 25, 2016
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit Greenhouse
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago