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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kathleen Chalfant
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Her eyes bore right through you, but the impression she gives is not one of anger, determination, or even base intensity—but of fear. Somewhere just behind you stands a powerful force that could not terrify this woman more. And the more time you spend with her, Rose Kennedy, at the production of Laurence Leamer's play Rose that just opened at the Clurman Theatre, you come to have an intimate relationship with it, too: hubris.

As Leamer depicts the matriarch of the Kennedy clan, and especially as she's played with icy precision by Kathleen Chalfant, Rose is seemingly alone in her family at not having been directly affected by the corrosive capabilities of excessive pride. But she may have an even heavier burden to bear: watching her husband and most of her children waste away, one at a time, because they're confronted with the fact that none of them can completely escape the consequences of their actions.

It's an incisive, sobering take on the family with perhaps the greatest claim (earned or otherwise) to American royalty, but one that works well enough within the extremely limited boundaries Leamer has set. That means he restricts his focus to Rose, holding court in her Hyannis Port home in the summer of 1969, after a rather eventful week. Sure, there was that little moon landing thing (one of her sons did have something to do with that), but more important for her is that her youngest son, Edward (aka Ted), drove his car off of a bridge in Chappaquiddick and left his passenger, one Mary Jo Kopechne, there for hours to suffocate to death.

It's a terrible misfortune for the Kennedys, to be sure, but she's quick to remind us it's only the latest of many. Her husband Joe's career in politics was cut short when, as ambassador to the United Kingdom in the late 1930s, he urged Britain to make peace with Hitler-run Germany and publicly criticized Eleanor Roosevelt. (He's now suffered a stroke and is sequestered upstairs and out of sight.) First son Joe Jr. died fighting in World War II. Kathleen, the second-oldest girl, married out of the Kennedy's cherished Catholic faith and died in a plane crash. Patricia married Peter Lawford and was driven to drink. John and Robert you've probably heard of, and thus won't be dwelt upon here.

Maybe most devastating was the fate of Rose's eldest daughter, Rosemary. Born slow (a nurse made Rose hold her in during birth, thus depriving her brain of much-needed oxygen), she was hidden from the public for many years, and was compelled by Joe Sr. to get a lobotomy at age 23—a treatment that reduced her mental capacity to that of a 3-year-old. She was shipped off to a hospital where she would not embarrass anyone, but there are few more vivid symbols of just how far the Kennedys believed their hands could reach.

As Rose unfolds over a just-pushing-it length of 90 minutes, Joe Sr. emerges as the clan's unfortunate role model, and someone against whom Rose must act as a corrective. She's pained by his womanizing and coldness, but can't leave him (which isn't to say she didn't explore the possibility) and, relegated to the status of something of an outsider in her own existence, Rose sees more clearly as the time wears on just what her husband's role—and hers—has been in bringing the Kennedys to their current state of crisis.

It's rarely a riveting evening, and anyone with merely a passing familiarity of the Kennedys will find few genuine surprises in it. But it unveils enough seldom-aired complexities to at least stay interesting. The production could be sharper: Director Caroline Reddick Lawson has gone small and simple, when more sweep and grandeur are called for; we need to be true subjects in Rose's kingdom, but instead it always seems remote. Anya Klepikov's set doesn't do much to help with the illusion, and Jane Greenwood's white upper-crust costume and Caitlin Smith Rapoport's lighting are standard-issue. And the projections (from Klepikov and Lianne Arnold), drawn from the many family photos Rose keeps in her home, have a dusty-TV-biography feel that doesn't amplify any latent drama.

Not that they have to in any case: Chalfant summons the ghosts of these long-absent, but still-influential, figures better than physical evidence ever could. Seeing their impact on her Rose makes us consider their impact on the country, and in turn the power we've allotted them as our own Massachusetts Windsors. Chalfant's portrayal is articulate and measured, but pointed, every line reading, head turn, and blink choreographed to allow Rose to maintain the appearances that drive her, as seems exactly correct for someone who was always at or near the center of the public attention.

But as Rose's memories pile up around her, she begins to buckle under the strain and wisps of darkness creep into Chalfant's initially sunny portrayal. She stops being a woman who needs to make excuses and becomes one who accepts her deceptively sorry lot. And Chalfant gets better and better, more agonized and agonizingly hollow, as Rose's self-awareness increases.

"When I look up now, I see no stars," she says near the end. "I see no light. I see a sky full of darkness. But I do not look into that blackness. I look at once was. And what forevermore will be remembered." Convincing as the lines may be on their face, the mist through which Rose stares suggests that even she does not fully believe them. And when the battle between reality and fantasy heats up further, she becomes more gripping still in her delusion, trying to sell us on a Camelot-set fairy tale everyone—her most of all—knows never existed.

When, in Rose's final moments, Chalfant stands firmly center stage and says, laboring fiercely to keep her voice from breaking, "There is nothing we cannot do," she ensures the irony is overwhelming. Then, and only then, do we see that Rose is no innocent herself, but rather a contributor to the characteristic Kennedy attitude that to this day inspires fascination and, in some quarters, reverence. Behind Chalfant's haunted visage, we see first-hand how that mystique was built on equal parts joy and anguish, as what was assumed to be an eternal bloom wilted beneath America's gaze.

Through December 13
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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