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A CurtainUp Philadelphia Review
By Lewis Whittington
The old song "Sentimental Journey" plays out as the lights go up on the cloudy blue-sky backdrops suggesting the chilly winds off the Kennedy family compound circa 1936. The climate mirrors the equally icy interiors of the household of U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy (Dan Kern) and his wife Rose (Cecelia Riddett), in Jim O'Connor's Rosemary' a tragic portrait about the famous family's lesser-known tragedy of a tortured misunderstood eldest daughter.
The couple strain to see their children Joseph Jr. and Kathleen loose a sailboat race on the Atlantic as Rosemary tries to get her father's attention, unsuccessfully. Her parents are talking about future plans for their children in this postcard setting that would be an idyllic, but for the intrusion Rosemary, who has been deemed "slow,and getting worse" by her father.
Rosemary retreats into her private world of talking to rocks she has collected on the beach and O'Connor makes the point early that her dysfunctional family contributed to her mental deterioration. "Slow" is what they used to say in those days to cover a whole range of neurological or emotional disorders.
O'Connor wisely constructs a tense family dynamic that bypasses preconceived notions about these famous people. Joe Kennedy's overbearing manner affects every aspect of his children's lives and this point intensifies the entire first act. He emerges not only as distant and manipulative but brutally cold toward Rosemary, who never gives up on seeking his love and approval. In a key scene, 20-year-old Rosemary starts to question and mock her father's stoicism in ways that her sophisticated siblings Joe, Kat and Jack wouldn't dare.
After she runs away from her family in Washington DC she tries to blend in at Union Station Just as she becomes more and more paranoid, she is saved by her brother Jack and, in a beautifully crafted scene, confesses her complex inner struggles and fears. By giving Rosemary this arc of maturity O'Connor makes you wonder why her siblings didn't see that she could have been saved from her father's morbid reaction to her condition.
Michelle Courvais conveys the private, needy, and ultimately deluded world of Rosemary with measured restraint. She walks a fine line in scenes where it is hard to determine how "slow" Rosemary is supposed to come off. Her duality is especially intriguing in such scenes as the daughters' preparing to be presented to the King and Queen of England and London society during which the action freezes as a hapless Rosemary rehearses what she was supposed to do and say to not draw attention to herself. In other scenes not establishing her mental capacity becomes a distracting guessing game.
As Rosemary acts out in more disruptive ways, her father makes the decision to have her lobotomized in a desperate attempt to hide her away. The surgery is depicted in an eerie, horror film atmosphere of suffocating shadows and surgical lights, ending with a blood-curdling scream.
Act II shifts into a morality play about Joe's retribution for condemning his eldest daughter to this uncertain fate with patchwork style chronicles the famous Kennedy tragedies. This act is startlingly awkward against the carefully structured first actI. Joe, Jr's disappearance when he was on a reconnaissance mission during World War II and Kathleen's similar demise seem like gratuitous events.
The voice-over of Rosemary haunting Joe when he is paralyzed by a stroke lapse into redundancy. The scene when Rosemary and her father, both residents of the same asylum, watch JFK funeral on television plays like a dramatic scene from burlesque. Neither does the dayroom scene where mentally disturbed patients roam around build to any understanding of Rosemary's fate.
Ultimately, there is much to admire in InterAct's production of the play which premiered last year in Chicago and won the 2002 Joseph Jefferson Citation for Outstanding New Work. Director Roger Danforth gives the meandering structure a straightforward pace and admirably steer an ensemble of first-rate performances. Cecelia Riddett's shows the tender and private side of Mrs. Kennedy, building off of the woman's warm matriarchal image for a dimensional portrayal. Patrick Doran played Joe Jr. with the quiet subtleties of a lost hero and Brian T. Delaney gives future president Jack a straightforward innocence, laced with irony. Kirsten Quinn didn't miss a note in the underwritten part of Rosemary's younger sister Kathleen. As Joe Sr. Dan Kern hits the right tone of suppressed rage against Rosemary's problems, a chapter in the Kennedy saga that might well be subtitled Far from Camelot.