Can there be anything more difficult in the theater than performing in a one-person show? The idea that the entire audience has their eyes on you at all times, coupled with having no one else on stage to cue you if you stumble or forget a line—it’s nerve wracking just to think about. The best performers, however, make you forget that they are the only person on stage, drawing you in with their dialogue and holding your attention with their story.
Such is the case in “Rose,” a one-woman play about Rose Kennedy starring Linda Monchik and currently on stage at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. The play is being performed in the Center’s Black Box Theater. An intimate space for an intimate play.
Ms. Monchik’s portrayal of Rose Kennedy has gotten even stronger since the show was staged by the Woods Hole Theater Company in 2017. She is compelling from the moment the play begins; her presence is strong and the story is captivating.
Even those in the audience who were likely familiar with the myriad tragedies suffered by Rose Kennedy’s nine offspring, including two assassinations, one wartime death, a fatal plane crash, and a ruinous surgery, still audibly gasped to hear a mother talk about the fates of her children.
The time is late July 1969, one week after the accident on Chappaquiddick Island that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and derailed Ted Kennedy’s future presidential ambitions. It’s also only days after the Apollo 11 moon walk which fulfilled the goal set in 1961 by then president, John F. Kennedy. A bittersweet triumph for Rose, no doubt.
While speaking with her biographer, she paces back and forth in her Hyannisport home, anxious but with her emotions kept in check, looking out the window periodically for Ted, who took out his sailboat yesterday and has yet to return. Family members call with their own advice and opinions. Rumors swirl that he’s on Nantucket with a woman who is not his wife. Rose does her best to quell them.
The period living room set includes family photographs of the Kennedys: Rose at her high school graduation, Rose with her father on her wedding day, Joe Jr. and Jack Kennedy in their military uniforms, Rosemary and Kathleen on either side of Rose being presented in London.
Over the course of the play, which is performed without an intermission, Rose speaks frankly with her biographer while looking through old family albums.
To say Ms. Monchik portrays Rose would be misleading. She inhabits the character. She is Rose. Indomitable yet also subjugated.
She recalls her late father’s decision not to allow her to attend Wellesley College, her husband’s skirting of service in World War I and its effect on their marriage along with his decision to allow their daughter Rosemary to undergo a lobotomy in 1941 without Rose’s consent. She also recalls advice from Cardinal Cushing to try and prevent her daughter Kathleen from marrying a Protestant man, advice which caused a rift between mother and daughter. “All my life I obeyed men,” she says at one point. “Life is a matter of compromise and it’s the woman who make them,” she acknowledges at another.
Rose muses over the many affairs her husband engaged in and how she pretended not to know, divulging, “I see everything and pretend to see nothing.” With Joe Sr. now bedridden from a stroke she engages in some small defiances, including going to visit Rosemary, and displaying photographs of her late son, Joe Jr.
So many what-ifs inhabit this play and yet Rose remains stoic. At one point on the verge of agitation she stops to recite the rosary which calms her. Her voice is firm and confident and despite disappointments and some brief bitterness toward the men who misled her, she states, “I love my life and everything in it.”
Rose Kennedy presents a real conundrum. A woman so obviously used to being in charge of others: kitchen staff, housekeepers, delivery people, and the like, and yet so beholden to the men in her life that you just want to shake her.
In her late 70s during the action of the play, Rose Kennedy would go on to live another quarter of a century after the events at Chappaquiddick, outliving her husband by 26 years and four of her nine children.
Written by Laurence Leamer, “Rose” debuted in 2015. Mr. Leamer is author of three books about the Kennedy family. He based the play on interview tapes between Rose Kennedy and her biographer, Robert Coughlan.
“Rose” continues at the Cotuit Center for the Arts through April 20.