Review: “Rose” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

She waits in her picturesque 1969 living room, with every surface covered in photos and albums. She’s the figurehead of the wealthy, pioneering, influential, ideal American family — the Kennedys — and the only one returning her calls right now is the damn biographer. So, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, mother to activists, war heroes, socialites and power brokers starts off intending to give perfect accounts of her children’s public facing legacies, then veers into the murky territory of what made those successes possible. With “Rose”, Greenhouse Theater Center’s remount of  author Laurence Leamer’s and solo-performer Linda Reiter’s  2016 smashing tell-all, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and no better woman to do it.

Linda Reiter’s Rose is all at once marooned, desperate for a confessional booth to pour her history into, and very cagey with outsiders. “You can’t trust anybody outside the family,” she tells her sons and daughters. She’s born into wealth and prominence as the daughter of Boston’s first Irish Catholic mayor John F. Fitzgerald, and devotes her life to carrying that legacy into the future. She marries into Kennedys (her father’s political rivals), turns an icy-cold cheek to her husband’s early infidelity and unpopular peace-mongering at the onset of World War II, and channels all her hopes and ambitions onto her sons (mostly) and daughters (somewhat). There’s barely an utterance of the word ‘divorce’, and such a thing would be untenable to a good Catholic such as Rose, anyway. “I always obeyed men,” Rose admits, when her own wants threaten to overtake her.

To her sons Joseph Jr. John, Robert and Teddy,  there are no limits to what they can achieve. Their lavish compound in Cape Code was devoted to their clans’ rigorous mental and physical training, and every member of the family benefited from top notch schooling and induction into international high society.  “My daughters are nice, but I grow tired of them,” Rose admits of Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia and Jean, “They feel I did not love them the way I loved their brothers.” Her daughters are the only recipients of Rose’s disappointment. At every turn, they fail her by pursuing their dreams, becoming divorcees, or — God forbid — holding the men in their lives accountable for their actions.

The only daughter that Rose holds as dear as her boys is Rosemary, who is born with limited mental capabilities. When the once docile and joyful girl became too much of a handful, she was treated to a lobotomy at her father’s behest, and kept institutionalized for years in secret. Rose admits the lies they told for years, even to their own children about Rosemary’s whereabouts, especially during son John F. Kennedy’s presidential election.

Rose’s past is catching up to her in epic fashion, and she pages through Greek tragedies while reliving her own devastating public losses that mirror them. The dynasty she’s built gets smaller with the loss of her sons, and the addition of scandal. Why her children hesitate to accept the privileges (and costs) they’ve been afforded the way that she did in her youth, is beyond her. To be popular, well respected, and to carry a dynasty is worth any price to Rose, and failure is never an option.

The automatic prestige of a show like “Rose”, and the easy parallels to epic Greek tragedies are what make this production so easily producible. The real-life drama is bursting at the seams, and the scenery comes ready-to-chew by an astoundingly effective Linda Reider, holding court as Rose. She is so intent on inspiring only admiration and respect for her distinguished clan, that her true feelings come upon her by complete surprise; “I am angry — and I never feel angry,” she admits. Complete strength and poise are the only things to convey when you have everything. Never doubt. Never despair.

“Rose” is set lavishly, thanks to director Steve Scott, who gives us a very one-sided parlor drama as the waves crash outside and the phone rings incessantly. The only question I have after viewing this production is, why now? What about this incredibly wealthy, privileged, white story begs telling in 2018? The perspective of this production never quite makes a decision on how to look at Rose Kennedy: Is she a tragic heroine not at fault for living high on the hog while she could, only doing her best to navigate a tumultuous world? Or, was her prominence an ushering in of new levels of white patriarchal complacency we are only just beginning to grasp the devastating effects of, fully?

Theater affords you an opportunity to levy your perspective on a person, a time, or an institution, but what comes through here is better suited for a documentary. Because “Rose” hovers, and never makes a statement on its subject matter, it leaves us with a rather weak punch.

DICE RATING: d10 — Worth Going To

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Kennedy clan matriarch has a whole lot to talk about.

Show: “Rose”

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue:  Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.)