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'Rose,' an Intimate Portrait of Camelot's Queen Mother

Image: 'Rose,' an Intimate Portrait of Camelot's Queen Mother
Linda Reiter as Rose Kennedy in "Rose." (Photo courtesy Forum Productions)

By    |   Monday, 04 Dec 2017 09:22 AM

Laurence Leamer's play "Rose: An Intimate Portrait of Rose Kennedy," about the Kennedy matriarch, was first produced at New York's Clurman Theater in 2015 in New York City, with Kathleen Chalfant playing Rose Kennedy.

The play received glowing reviews and standing ovations. In 2016, it appeared at Chicago's Greenhouse Theater Center with the accomplished Chicago actress Linda Reiter in the role. Newsmax's Richard Grigonis caught up with the play at the Mizner Park Cultural Center in Boca Raton, Florida, where it will appear (again starring Ms. Reiter) from Nov. 29-Dec. 23. His review follows.

The scene of Laurence Leamer's play, "Rose," is an elegant living room in Hyannis Port, Mass., occupied by the lone, ostensibly unassuming figure of Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald Kennedy.

As is the case with any great theatrical experience, however, looks can be deceiving. She is the long-suffering yet supremely resilient matriarch of America's most idolized, romaticized and demonized political family, the Kennedys.

Rose turns to the audience and welcomes us, much like a hostess welcoming a visiting member of polite society to afternoon tea. But we are special visitors, for soon we are drawn into a detailed yet vivid and emotional recounting of her life.

The time of her grand reminiscence is just a week after her son Edward Kennedy’s 1969 Chappaquiddick Island tragedy, when his car ran off a rickety bridge into a pond and he fled the scene, leaving the auto's passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown.

Additionally, it is not long after the deaths of two of her other sons, John and Robert Kennedy. The moment is in a sense a dramatic pause in the long-time, boisterous onslaught of the Kennedy clan. It is a convenient starting point for Rose’s tale which, though rooted in reality, feels more at home in the realm of fable.

Playwriting is an art so impalpable, subtle and complex that many a great author has stumbled badly in his or her attempts to master the form. Charles Dickens, an enthusiastic amateur performer and fervent lover of the theatre, immediately comes to mind.

Moreover, a “one-woman show” such as "Rose" presents a special challenge for even seasoned playwrights. It is a considerable feat to craft words that can keep an audience riveted to a single speaking actor for an hour or more.

Fortunately, it turns out that Larry Leamer has a great natural instinct for this type of dramatic construction. He has fashioned a deeply emotional portrayal rather than a politically-tinged intellectual endeavor.

His captivating, confidently-crafted monologues vividly illuminate many complex events in 90 minutes that could only otherwise be conveyed in a ten-hour miniseries.

Leamer’s detailed knowledge of Rose and the many people and events of the Kennedy family is quite astounding; it's as if we are listening to a memoir penned by a family member read aloud. That’s probably because Leamer, who is perhaps the most prolific and preeminent of the Kennedy biographers, had access to more than 40 hours of taped interviews with Rose Kennedy conducted by the late Robert Coughlan, ghostwriter of her 1974 memoir, "Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy: Times to Remember."

Leamer's fine play received an additional boost by the truly exquisite performance of Linda Reiter as Rose. A major figure of the Chicago stage, Reiter's much-heralded performance in the one-woman show "The Testament of Mary" spurred director Steve Scott to approach her to do "Rose."

Reiter sees in Rose a struggle for self-knowledge.

"Just think about what Rose is going through," says Reiter. "As she says at the beginning, 'I have to figure things out here. What's happened to this family?' She's now got somebody in her living room listening to her story. And so a catharsis occurs, a release of her powerful, repressed emotions — everything she's been holding under the surface for so many years. And we see that she becomes so angry.

"But she brings it down and under control again because she still has to live with her family and maintain her duty and honor and public appearance. She had to be quite an actor herself. It was a different time. She reveals all of these family travails during one day in her life, and then it's gone. But I think she learns a lot from what she's mentally processing as she recalls the events of her life during the course of the play."

Rose remembers/reconstructs — as well as dismembers/deconstructs — the long Kennedy epic, fraught as it is with characters whose motivations and goals can seemingly be neatly formulated. Yet, like Rose herself, they all eventually reveal through her their internal and external conflicts and contradictions during the story’s unfolding.

"Rose" is not a mere chronicle of neatly-packaged history book or TV documentary events, but a dramatization of the very act of remembering, beset as it is with the struggle to assemble scattered pieces of lost moments, both painful and joyous, dealing with the ambivalence of the past and imagining what could have been and what should have been.

We are pummeled by events along with Rose as she reveals her belief that the deliberate delay in the birth of her daughter Rose Marie ("Rosemary") led to a mental birth defect. This in turn led to later emotional instability. Her recollection of Rosemary's subsequent — and disastrous — lobotomy is a study in repressed, agonized intensity.

And what account of the libertine Joseph P. Kennedy would be complete without a perusal of his many infidelities? "Rose" does not disappoint us.

As Rose surveys the Kennedy ancestral burial ground of memories, her narrative takes on an increasingly dreamlike aspect as her unconscious unshackles itself and freely wanders among the family spirits conjured up to tread the floorboards in the twilight region behind her, compressing time and space and momentarily ignoring the boundaries of life and death.

Leamer’s masterful discourse manages to keep the narrative force going strong without pausing to trip over such trite devices such as puns, repetitions, riddles or plays on words; or, for that matter, turning the whole thing into one big polemical tract.

However, one expects a play about a showboating political family to unavoidably sport some political overtones, and "Rose" of course does.

In the case of the Kennedys, their cacophonic personal episodes paralleled the discord in 20th century American progressivism and liberalism.

The particular brand of liberalism they proffered became known, appropriately, as “Kennedy Liberalism.” It was a utopian ideology exhibiting the three values of pragmatism, egalitarianism (social reform) and individualism, all suffused with an undying belief in rationalism.

The Kennedys fancied that that they were on a mission to save the Republic from becoming a plutocracy rife with 20th-century conservative values of self-interest, materialism, and consumerism. They strove to steer it back toward the traditional American values of virtue, duty and self-sacrifice.

Great leaders in a democracy are said to be great "convincers" and educators of the masses. In the era of civil rights turmoil, the Kennedys, with their "servant leader" mentality and commitment to the intellectual and moral growth of people and the building of a national community, felt they could transform society simply by educating America as to the value of mediation over coercion. Reasonable people should always be able to work things out under the law, or so they thought.

Leamer's play "Rose," however, gives us one final lesson — that those blessed with money and power, even when possessing high-minded ideals, can come under the spell of self-interest, overconfidence and narcissism. Joe Kennedy and some of his brood were a living DNA blueprint for the drug-fueled, sex-crazed, hedonistic beliefs that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s.

This leads us to the continual, unrelenting and eerily tragic undercurrent to Rose's narrative. All of the Kennedy people and events are shot through with an ancient Greek tragic sensibility, as the hubris of Joe Kennedy and his at times presumptuous offspring spur them to exceed normal human limits, take incredible risks and violate moral codes, leading to a long and inevitable, disastrous series of results.

Thus was born the mythic "Kennedy Curse."

It was Robert F. Kennedy who raised the notion of a "family curse" while reading the Greek tragedies in the aftermath of his brother's assassination.

"In the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles," writes RFK's biographer Evan Thomas, "Kennedy discovered fate and hubris. He began to wonder if the Kennedy family had somehow overreached, dared too greatly. In his copy of Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, he had underlined Herodotus: 'All arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears. God calls men to a heavy reckoning for overweening pride.' ... The Kennedys were the House of Atreus, noble and doomed, and RFK began to see himself as Agamemnon."

From the ancient Greeks, Evan Thomas speculates, Kennedy may have found some solace in learning that the fall of great houses is fated, their figures doomed to repeat the sins of the fathers, generation upon generation.

Senator Edward Kennedy was the first family member to use the word "curse" in public, inserted by Ted Sorensen in Edward Kennedy's Chappaquiddick speech.

Indeed, the dramatic essence of Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick speech is strangely similar to that of Rose’s recitation of the Kennedy Greek tragedy. He too is both chorus and protagonist in a tragedy where the end is foreordained and inescapable.

But Ted Kennedy's 17-minute speech is more an explanation of the nuts, bolts and mechanics of how tragic events unfold, not why: "My fellow citizens: I have requested this opportunity to talk... about the tragedy which happened last Friday evening. This morning I entered a plea of guilty... But tonight I am free to tell you what happened and to say what it means to me...."

Unlike Rose, Ted Kennedy was far less successful at playing the heroic victim, given the suspicious circumstances surrounding Chappaquiddick.

Yes, with its ancient Greek "feel," Leamer seems to have more in common with Aeschylus or Sophocles than any modern playwright. Rose's apparent desire is to convert her living room-cum-photo archive into a secret Catholic confessional for herself and a Kennedy patriarchy that had sinned far too much and too long. But this tale has no glorious Hollywood ending of Christian redemption.

Instead, the sensibility of ancient Greek tragedy wins out. There's a wistful tinge of guilt and sense of the inevitability of everyone's actions and their consequences.

Like Sophocles' character of Oedipus who, though forewarned, was cocksure and thought he knew exactly what to do to nobly save the Theban people from a plague, so too did the self-assured, reckless Kennedy clan refuse to give up their quixotic and inevitably fatal quest to transform American society, for they, like Oedipus, would have failed their people.

Sophocles, incidentally, was a master at using the Greek chorus in his works. Aristotle said that the chorus should be treated as if it were an actor. In "Rose," Leamer appears to have pushed the concept to its logical limit, reversing the roles of actors and chorus, so that the character of Rose herself is a front-and-center "Greek chorus" commenting on the Kennedy family members.

The latter are present merely as ghosts wafting about somewhere offstage, making their appearance via photographic projections on a huge screen behind the living room set only when needed to illustrate Rose's recollections.

Her poignant incarnation of once great though now declining majesty is a study in great unfulfilled potential, a life squandered in support of her more luminary male family members. There were many roads not taken in her life, and many suppressed grievances along the routes she did trek.

Thus, the saga told by Leamer's one-woman Greek chorus is a profound meditation on hubris and a complex example of dramatic workmanship with a poetic sensibility, stocked with characters — both onstage and off — that will deeply resonate with any audience.

And so another great playwright bursts upon the scene: Laurence Leamer, an exemplary dramatist imbued with culture and excellence who recounts the Greek myth-like excesses of the larger-than-life Kennedy clan via a compelling and intimate audience with their matriarch, Rose, and her powerfully vivid memories.

Bravo, Mr. Leamer!

Note: "Rose" will return to the Chicago's Greenhouse Theater Center, playing there from Jan. 12, 2018 until March 11.

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Laurence Leamer's play "Rose: An Intimate Portrait of Rose Kennedy," about the Kennedy matriarch, was first produced at New York's Clurman Theater in 2015 in New York City, with Kathleen Chalfant playing Rose Kennedy.
rose, portrait, camelot, mother
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2017-22-04
Monday, 04 Dec 2017 09:22 AM
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