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Rose, The Kennedy Story as Told by the Woman Who Lived It All

As matriarch of the Kennedy clan, Kathleen Chalfant as usual is living her role – you feel you have actually met the mother of the late president.

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Kathleen Chalfant plays Rose Kennedy in “Rose” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Kathleen Chalfant plays Rose Kennedy in “Rose” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

The legendary stage actress Kathleen Chalfant is appearing in her second one-woman show, a follow-up to her “Mrs. Dalloway” in The Party, from the Virginia Woolf stories in 1993. This time she plays Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 79-year-old matriarch of the most famous political family in 20th century America. It is July 1969 and we meet her in the tasteful living room of her Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, home (designed by Anya Klepikov) one week after her youngest son Teddy’s tragic accident at Chappaquiddick. The premise of Rose, The Kennedy Story as Told by the Woman Who Lived It All is that we are members of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of the Redeemer visiting from Dublin. We are invited to stay until Teddy comes back from sailing which he has been doing since the previous day. Her husband Joe, Sr. who has had a stroke eight years before is being cared for in an upstairs bedroom.

The script by bestselling biographer Laurence Leamer is based on 40 hours of taped interviews that Rose made for Robert Coughlan, the ghost writer of her autobiography. As Rose worries about Teddy’s mental state and his whereabouts, she tells us her life story starting with the fact that of her nine children, she has already lost three of her sons and one of her daughters. She speaks of her father, the popular John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald who became mayor of Boston. As a member of the lace curtain Irish Catholic community, she was not supposed to marry Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., but Joe and she persisted and at age 24 she was married. She speaks of their love and the birth of their sons. One by one, each is the apple of their parent’s eye, and then fate takes a hand to change their destiny: Joe, Jr. killed in W.W. II, John Fitzgerald and Robert Francis killed by assassins’ bullets.

The birth of their daughter Rose Mary born simpleminded leads to Joe and Rose drifting apart, and Rose makes her own accommodation, divorce for an Irish Catholic being out of the question. During the 1930’s, she enjoys being the wife of the American ambassador to the Court of St. James, but is helpless to stop him destroying his political career when he pushes a plan for peace with Hitler’s Germany and criticizes First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She recounts how her daughter Kathleen marries out of the faith and is eventually killed in a plane crash. Joe, Sr., meddles in the love lives and eventual marriages of his surviving children and does not give them good advice leading to more unhappiness.

The 90-minute monologue is interrupted repeatedly by phone calls from the Kennedy women (Eunice, Joan, Pat and Jackie), all of whom are not part of Rose’s narrative. The message seems to be that one keeps a stiff back and endures the curves that life sends your way, protecting your family at all costs. While Rose admits to having enjoyed the privilege of her husband’s money and position, surprisingly she claims not to have known the source of his money. While most of the play is performed on the same level, Chalfant’s Rose is finally allowed to show real emotion when speaking of her husband’s arranging for the lobotomy of her daughter Rose Mary and her finding his love letters from film star Gloria Swanson. Leamer’s text has the ring of truth but one wonders if Rose Kennedy would have revealed so much to a group of visiting strangers.

Chalfant’s Rose, as would be expected, is cool and collected, polite, confiding but distant in her delivery, only showing flashes of emotion when she can’t contain herself in recounting the trials and tribulations of her life. Dressed in Jane Greenwood’s white-on-white pant suit accompanied by a string of pearls and pearl clip-ons, and a 1960’s bouffant hair-style, Chalfant is completely the grande dame who has a fascinating story to tell. Under the direction of Caroline Reddick Lawson, she is always commanding and interesting to listen to. However, at times, the play seems to be about to become repetitious; just as it is about to bog down, there is a phone call or some other distraction to change the tenor of her monologue.

Part of the problem with the play is that it attempts to cover too much family history, at the same time that it leaves out members of the family and is selective in other details. For the first half where Rose shows no emotion in retelling the events of her life, it seems to be too much of the same. The second half in which she admits to both her husband’s unforgiveable mistakes and her own failures is more interesting as the real woman underneath the façade is allowed to break through. The blurry slide projections by Klepikov & Lianne Arnold do not have so much as the appeal of a family album but the soporific effect of accompanying a lecture.

Chalfant’s “Rose” is fascinating as we realize that what we have seen is a beautifully created façade that covers up self-delusion and an attempt to keep from dealing with the realities of life in a world where all was a front for public consumption. Rose, the play, has a certain number of flaws which a bit of rewriting and reshaping could put on a better footing.

Rose, The Kennedy Story as Told by the Woman Who Lived It All (through December 13, 2015)

Nora’s Playhouse

Clurman Theatre at Theater Row 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit

Running time: one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (936 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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