Kathleen Chalfant gives life to the most famous matriarch of the 20th Century.
By Joel Benjamin
I couldn’t help thinking as I sat through Kathleen Chalfant’s brilliantly touching performance in Rose, that such an epic, century-spanning tale of a tragically doomed family puts other political dynasties—such as the Bushes—in a totally different and far dimmer light. The Kennedys are Greek tragedy. The Bushes, Neil Simon. The almost tragically mythological tale of the Kennedy clan, its very high highs and extraordinary lows, is all the more effective funneled through the mind of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the vastly under-estimated, behind-the-scenes dutiful helpmate, long suffering mother, scorned wife and lonely widow.
Conflicted is a mild description of the mind of Rose as she very politely, if a bit icily, entertains the audience (a stand in for a ladies’ club visiting from Ireland) with, at first, a calm autobiography. Gradually, the trickle of information becomes a torrent and gets the best of her as the tales of her privileged upbringing, marriage to the philandering Joseph Kennedy and the loss, through neglect, war and assassination of most of her children.
The solo play takes place just after the terrible incident at Chappaquiddick in which Teddy Kennedy drove his car off of a bridge, drowning Mary Jo Kopechne. Teddy is off on a yacht, at least according to the skittish Rose. She really doesn’t know exactly where he is and it’s clear that she assumes the worst: possible suicide, more cheating on his wife or a boating disaster. She fields call after call from her remaining children or their spouses, putting on a stiff-upper-lip façade that slides off with a resounding crash at the very end of the show when guilt, grief and frustration get the better of her and seventy-five years of withheld emotion explodes—until she pulls herself together again.
Ms. Chalfant, who’s bigger boned than the petit Rose Kennedy, somehow made herself both strong and fragile, helped by the slightly too-large dress designed by Jane Greenwood. The gracious living room of her Hyannis house was designed by Anya Klepikov. The windows of the room became screens upon which photos of her family members were shown as Rose leafed through piles of photo albums. (How sad it was for those of us in the audience who lived through the two assassinations to see John and Bobby as robust young men.)
Laurence Leamer wrote Rose after listening to many hours of recordings of Mrs. Kennedy, so it must be assumed he absorbed her style of speaking, which is slightly stilted, with a cultured patina that hides her “lace curtain” Irish background. He manages to have all the salient events of Kennedy family unroll efficiently, with Rose bravely and self-deludingly spinning each dark moment—from her husband’s long affair with Gloria Swanson to the dastardly lobotomy performed on her daughter Rosemary, to the heartbreaking deaths of too many of her children—to avoid having to face her own feelings of guilt and unutterable grief.
Caroline Reddick Lawson directed with a fine sense of the ebb and flow of this century-wide tale. Of course, Ms. Chalfant was charismatic, as usual, and molded what was clearly merely a documentary in the guise of a play into a fascinating character study.
Rose has a shockingly limited run. If you want to see the brilliant Ms. Chalfant at the top of her form, and get a refresher course in the colorful Kennedys, run to the Clurman Theatre immediately!
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Rose: The Kennedy Story as Told by the Woman Who Lived It All (through December 13, 2015)
The Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street, just west of 9th Avenue
New York, NY
For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission