Review: Where Camelot Began—Rose Kennedy at Renaissance Theaterworks in Milwaukee

Guest review by Anne Siegel

Chicago-based actor Linda Reiter is bringing her acclaimed portrayal of Rose Kennedy to Milwaukee in Rose: An Intimate Evening with Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. The show, written by Laurence Leamer, is being produced by Renaissance Theaterworks through June 5.

Rose catches the Kennedy matriarch in 1969 at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, about a week after the Chappaquiddick incident. It resulted in the death of automobile passenger Mary Jo Kopechne and unending questions for the driver, Edward (Ted) Kennedy.

On the day of the play, Teddy (as Rose called her youngest son) has gone sailing solo but is delayed in returning. Her fear about what may have happened to him (or what he may have done) breaks through her reserve multiple times. Still, she manages to control her worry—something she has had to do many times in a life filled with joy but also devastating tragedy.

By 1969, a 79-year-old Rose has lost four of her nine children. Another daughter, Rosemary, has also, in a way, become “lost” to Rose. In her early 20s, Rosemary had been secretly lobotomized and sent off to St. Coletta’s in Wisconsin. In this fine production, Rose talks at length about what effect Rosemary’s life had on her, and the lives of her children. She confides that Rosemary was the most beautiful of her daughters despite the fact, prior to the surgery, she had the mental abilities of a 9-year-old. 

Fearing that their daughter would wander off and become pregnant, Rose’s husband Joe decided that she should be tended by nuns in a rural Wisconsin home for “exceptional children.” Rosemary spent the rest of her life there, until her death in 2005.

Years later, another Kennedy daughter would twist her father’s arm to use funds from a family foundation to start a summer program for individuals with “intellectual disabilities.” It is now known as the Special Olympics.

Linda Reiter as Rose. Photo by Ross Zenter.

Understanding Rose’s Role as a Mother, Protector—and Campaigner

Although the play promises to be an “intimate” glimpse into Rose’s life, Reiter retains a steely demeanor throughout. Reiter relies on facts, more than emotions, to tell her story. What fascinates here is that most of the play’s dialog is taken directly from interviews with the real Rose Kennedy. 

In the play, Rose is speaking to an unseen interviewer. By the time it ends, many in the audience will feel as if they actually “got to know” this reserved, but persevering woman.

In portraying Rose, Reiter wears a simple, but well-constructed wrap dress, coordinated with pearls and heels (costume by Jazmin Aurora Medina). Her hair is perfectly coiffed, and she wears just a touch of makeup. She occasionally fingers a set of rosary beads, a visual reminder of her strict Catholic faith. 

Although that faith had sustained Rose through many personal and professional setbacks, it also controlled her in her early years. For instance, when a college-age Rose planned to attend her first semester at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, a priest changed her father’s mind at the last minute. Instead, Rose was sent to a convent school in Europe. 

By that time, Rose had already met Joe at a social occasion. She fretted that they had not yet kissed before she departed. In Rose’s world, she was told “the only man you need ever kiss was the man who was going to become your husband.” She needn’t have worried; Joe waited for her.  

As a mother, Rose was fiercely protective of her children. She admits to raising her girls differently than raising her sons. She told her daughters, “Life is a matter of compromises, and women make them.” To all of her offspring, she said that “Kennedys cry, but not where people can see them.”

Rose also was a fierce campaigner for her sons, especially after her husband had his first stroke. Reiter allows her character to bask briefly in the fact that one of her sons became the first Catholic U.S. President and, simultaneously, two others were a senator and the attorney general. As history knows, that glow didn’t last for long.

This Spring’s Not-to-Be-Missed Show

In her Chicago appearances as Rose, Reiter received the “Jeff” Award for Best Solo Performance in the Greenhouse Theater Center’s 2016 production of Rose. This is her fourth production of the play.

The Milwaukee production is under the direction of Elizabeth Margolis, who effortlessly guides Reiter through her 85-minute appearance. Reiter’s words are enhanced by subtle lighting effects (by Noele Stollmack) and interspersed with images of Kennedy photos throughout their lives (projections by John Medina). The stage itself consists of not only Rose’s living room, but edges outward to become the pier beyond their home (set design by Lauren Nichols). Tying it all together is the original music by Milwaukee composer Josh Schmidt.

Taken together, these elements promise a very satisfying evening of theater. This may be Linda Reiter’s first show in Milwaukee, but let’s hope it isn’t her last. With Rose, Renaissance audiences can expect not only a gift of wrapped chocolates after every show (and a celebratory drink on wine Wednesdays), but also a terrific end to the company’s 29th season. 

Rose: An intimate Evening with Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy continues with Renaissance Theaterworks through June 5. Running time is 85 minutes, with no intermission. The theater, located at 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee., requires mask-wearing indoors. For more information, see www.r-t-w.com, or call 414-278-0765.

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic who has been a member of the American Theatre Critics Association for more than 30 years. She has served on the organization’s executive committee and has held a number of committee chairmanships. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites.

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