Prop Theatre

at Victory Gardens Theater

When John F. Kennedy Jr. plunged his private plane into the ocean two years ago, the media trotted out the usual palaver. But to speak of the Kennedys as “cursed” suggests they’re some Irish-American version of the House of Atreus: bad luck (particularly in aviation) and poor judgment (playing football while skiing) have claimed more of the clan than deaths by assassination. And unlike the Greeks, the Kennedy family have not usually precipitated a tragedy by turning on one of their own.

Except once. And Jim O’Connor in his lyrical work, first presented during Prop Theatre’s “New Play 2000” festival, makes a cogent argument that the original sin of the family–or at least of its patriarch, the fearsomely ambitious Joseph P. Kennedy–was its treatment of the troubled eldest daughter. In Rosemary, O’Connor has created a mournful, moving, thoughtful portrait of a family in which the usual problems of dealing with mental illness and developmental disabilities have been magnified.

Rosemary Kennedy–born in 1918, one year after her presidential brother–was the first skeleton in the family closet (unless you count Joe’s early years as a bootlegger and his many infidelities, including an affair with Gloria Swanson). Usually described as mentally retarded, Rosemary is said to have become increasingly violent and unpredictable, wandering off for hours at a time. Fearful of a public scandal, the elder Kennedy had her lobotomized in 1941 without consulting his wife, Rose. The operation left Rosemary completely dependent on the nuns and doctors at Saint Coletta’s in Jefferson, Wisconsin, where she remains to this day. For years the Kennedys didn’t mention her disability, talking about her as a sort of nun without holy orders, living a simple life out of the spotlight. It was only in the 60s that the Kennedys began to publicly discuss Rosemary’s mental incapacitation, and since then many of the family’s charitable activities (most notably Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s Special Olympics) have been geared toward helping the mentally handicapped.

Lobotomy isn’t a new subject for drama; Tennessee Williams used his sister Rose’s mental illness and subsequent surgery as material for Suddenly Last Summer, whose central struggle occurs between a strong-willed mother figure and a tormented truth teller. In Rosemary the father is key: O’Connor’s tragic heroine lives on the fringes of a family bent by Joe Sr.’s insistence on success at any price. If she hadn’t been a Kennedy, O’Connor strongly hints, her fate would have been quite different–and her life happier. At the very least she would have been spared the medical procedure that permanently wiped out large segments of her memory and left her devoid of emotion. (Right after the lobotomy, Rosemary delivers a monologue to the audience: “Memory beckons like a star–distant, bright, lost. The you inside you burns up.”) It seems the elder Kennedy’s financial and political clout allowed him to strong-arm the doctors into performing the surgery despite their doubts about Rosemary being a suitable candidate.

O’Connor ably suggests from the beginning the way public life rendered the Kennedys’ private lives a matter of triumph–or shame. In the first scene, Joe Sr. and Rose are watching a boat race in which their children Joe Jr. (John Gawlik) and Kathleen (Beth Hallaren)–nicknamed “Kick”–are participating. Joe Sr., binoculars glued to his eyes, bellows instructions from the shore that the kids can’t possibly hear while his wife sits placidly by. “Everybody will try to knock these boys down in the real world,” he fumes to her. “This is their chance to get ready.”

When the teenage Rosemary enters, she frets about not being able to go out in a dinghy by herself, marvels at the “water sparks” kicked up by the boats, and plays with her collection of rocks. Talking about the roots of plants poking out from the dunes, she says, “They’re made for the ground but stuck in the air”–in effect describing her own state as a childlike dreamer in a ruthlessly pragmatic family. This naifish wisdom could easily turn Rosemary into the sort of cloying idiot savant beloved of Hollywood (Forrest Gump, anyone?). But Michelle Courvais’ dignified performance and O’Connor’s script, which gives Rosemary her own startling brand of the Kennedy wit, save us from that prospect. When Rosemary’s mother says to her, “I think an apology is in order,” Rosemary responds, “I think you’re ordering an apology.” Courvais’ reading of the line is just right, making it clear that Rosemary knows when she’s being manipulated and resents it.

Of course O’Connor’s version of the story may not be any closer to the truth than that put forth by the Kennedy spinmeisters. Certainly he feels free to invent. At one point President Kennedy, who’s consistently been Rosemary’s champion, publicly criticizes his father for secretly lobotomizing his sister. It’s a credit to O’Connor’s ear–and Tim Miller’s perfectly pitched vocal impersonation–that it seems a transcript of an actual Kennedy speech.

But the strongest element of O’Connor’s play is the difficult but loving relationship between Rosemary and her father. In one scene she’s sequestered at boarding school during the war, awaiting a rare visit from him. In her dream version, Joe Sr. resembles a soldier come a’courting, bringing her chocolates and silk stockings, whereas in reality his visits are brief and strained. This scene contains the tiniest suggestion of something sinister in their relationship: “I’ll tell mother,” Rosemary warns. But what she has to tell is never explained. Frankly I’m glad that O’Connor didn’t go down the road of an incestuous relationship, which would have made Joe Sr. a complete monster. In Gene Cordon’s tough but anguished performance, the man is sincerely convinced he’s doing the best thing possible for his family given his dynastic imperatives. When Rosemary and Kick are presented at court in England, his pride in Rosemary’s ability to rise to the occasion–making carefully rehearsed small talk and dancing a waltz–is palpable.

In the second act Rosemary gets a bit predictable, as the sequence of Kennedy deaths–first Joe Jr., then Kick, then JFK–begins ticking down; a metronomelike sound effect at the beginning of the act drives home the inexorable nature of their fates. In a device that quickly grows old, Rosemary appears downstage center like an avenging one-woman chorus, intoning before each death an image of the lobotomy: “The knife comes again, and again.” We know these tragedies are coming, but we don’t see enough of the effect they have on Joe Sr. Debra Ann Miller’s Rose is wonderful, however, revealing unexpected depths of rage and grief at the betrayals by her husband and by God.

As directed by Russ Tutterow, the ensemble–all of whom, with the exception of Courvais and Cordon, play multiple roles–are sufficiently versatile to move easily from their Kennedy incarnations to other characters. In a clever move, Tutterow casts Tim Miller, who also plays JFK, as the doctor most opposed to the lobotomy.

O’Connor’s greatest gift as a writer is his surprisingly subtle, imagistic use of language. The only time the word “fuck” is uttered–by Rosemary in the midst of a mini tantrum–it’s as shocking to us as it is to her family, a reminder of how overused obscenity is in contemporary plays. Perhaps part of my surprise at the play’s delicacy and decidedly female point of view is that it seems somewhat out of character for Prop, usually purveyors of two-fisted guys’ guys like Charles Bukowski and Nelson Algren.

But the gnawing sorrow and sense of loss at the play’s heart remain raw and unadorned. O’Connor wraps up the play by having Rosemary and her father, who’s had a massive stroke, face each other once again: she’s deprived of her personality while he’s lost his speech–and the ability to persuade and bully. In this sad onstage rapprochement, daughter and father achieve a sort of peace with themselves and each other denied them in real life.