Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald Kennedy was 104 when she died at the fabled Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, in 1995. She had outlived her highly controversial and notoriously unfaithful husband, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., by a quarter of a century, had buried four of their nine children when they were still in the prime of their lives, and was survived by 26 grandchildren and 42 great-grandchildren.

‘ROSE’
Recommended
When: Through Sept. 25
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $42 – $48
Info: www.greenhousetheater.org
Run time: 90 minutes with
no intermission

The matriarch of the Kennedy clan was, by any measure, a survivor. And she certainly had a front row seat for the history of most of the 20th century. But in “Rose” — the one-woman play starring Linda Reiter and penned by Laurence Leamer, a Kennedy family chronicler — it becomes painfully clear that such a seat of privilege came at an exceedingly high price. Ruled by the dictates of her father, her husband and the priests of the Catholic church, Rose learned early on to live by a code of submission and self-suppression. By the later decades of her life she understood what she had done, and was angry at herself for not rebelling while at the same time recalling her husband’s warning that everyone will eventually betray you except family. It was a warning that grew to feel more than a little hollow.

Leamer’s play, now receiving its Chicago premiere as part of the Greenhouse Theater Center’s Solo Celebration project, is set in the summer of 1969, immediately after “the Chappaquiddick incident.” Rose was 79 when her youngest son, Sen. Ted Kennedy, became somewhat inebriated at a party on that island, and supposedly offered to drive one of his late brother Bobby Kennedy’s campaign workers, Mary Jo Kopechne, to a ferry that would take her back to Martha’s Vineyard. Kopechne died when Kennedy’s car ran off a bridge, and the scandalous assumptions that followed the accident looked as if they might derail Ted’s future. As she waits to hear from her youngest son, who has gone sailing, Rose pages through old photo albums in her sitting room, and recounts her life.

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Petite and wiry, Reiter (a multiple Jeff Award-winning actress whose previous solo turn was as Jesus’ mother in Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary,” at Victory Gardens Theater) bears an uncanny resemblance to Rose Kennedy. And she ideally captures the long-practiced stoic bearing of the woman, as well as her occasional acid bite — something reserved primarily for her daughters and daughter-in-laws (Jackie Kennedy excepted), who were always second-class citizens to her, while she maintained a worshipful attitude toward her sons.

Linda Reiter plays Rose Kennedy in the one-woman show, "Rose," part of the Solo Celebration series at the Greenhouse Theater Center. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Linda Reiter plays Rose Kennedy in the one-woman show “Rose,” part of the Solo Celebration series at the Greenhouse Theater Center. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

The play, directed by Steve Scott, is based on 40 hours of previously unreleased interviews Rose made with the late Robert Coughlan, the ghost writer on her autobiography, “Times to Remember.” And while much of it is familiar by now, some of it still has the power to shock. Most notably there is the devastating sequence about the eldest daughter of Joseph and Rose — the  beautiful but somewhat mentally disabled Rosemary — who was taken by her father to have one of the earliest prefrontal lobotomies that resulted in further permanent damage. All this was done without the knowledge of Rose, whose 23-year-old daughter was subsequently institutionalized for the rest of her life. Yet even in the wake of this betrayal Rose swallowed her rage at her husband.

It was, of course, those Kennedy boys who kept their mother’s eye on the prize. First there was Joe Kennedy Jr., just 29 when he was killed in action as a bomber pilot in World War II — perhaps on a personal mission to regain the family’s honor after his father, named Ambassador to London, shamefully supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. Then there was the sickly but charismatic John Kennedy, who served heroically in the South Pacific and, against all the odds, was elected to the Senate, and then to the presidency. JFK finally satisfied his father’s long-running loathing of the Protestant “Brahmins” of Boston who forever looked down on Irish Catholic immigrants, no matter how rich, educated or successful they might have become.

The subsequent assassinations of John Kennedy and Bobby elicited a formal grief, but Rose considered tears an indulgence. And Teddy was still there to pick up the mantle.

Reiter’s performance is expertly measured, taut and revealing, although the play itself can feel stilted at times, especially when Rose must initially welcome her (invisible) questioner into the room, and later respond to periodic phone calls. Members of the Baby Boom generation will have lived through much of this story. Younger audiences who have no doubt absorbed some of the lore might find elements of the story new. And younger women might be awakened to just how emotionally oppressed and suppressed earlier generations of their sex could be. For it was the Kennedy boys who captured the spotlight while the women in their lives drowned in the reflected glory.