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Theater Review:

Prop Thtr’s "ROSEMARY" at Victory Gardens Studio Theater


Jim O’Connor’s latest play, "Rosemary" – which was workshopped as part of Prop Thtr’s "New Plays 2000" festival – overflows with promise. Receiving its world premiere by Prop Thtr at Victory Gardens Studio Theater, the drama chronicles the tortured life of the least-known offspring of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Rosemary Kennedy, whose mental illness stood in the way of Joe’s vast political ambitions, was quietly pushed into the background – yet, perhaps, she was the most conspicuous family member by her absence.

When her misunderstood "condition" began to upset the family’s aggressive win-win mantra, Joe took it upon himself to have her "cured" by agreeing to a lobotomy for his daughter, who was left in a feeble, childlike state. Rosemary was then hidden away in a mental institution and almost never discussed in public.

So the fact that O’Connor has decided to tackle this sensitive topic is a triumph in itself. And for the entire first act, "Rosemary" unfolds with breathtaking urgency as the titular young woman desperately tries to live up to her family’s relentless demands. Most impressively, the playwright explores a wealth of possibilities, including Joe’s misguided desire to cure his daughter in the midst of his merciless ambitions; the general ignorance of mental illness at the time; and, on a more metaphoric level, Rosemary as a tragic symbol of an outspoken non-conformist who must be silenced.

O’Connor also exhibits tight, poetic writing and centers his attention on Joe, Rose, Joseph Jr., Kathleen, Jack and Rosemary Kennedy. Fortunately, there are not a lot of extraneous characters to muddy his deeply focused dramatic waters.

But all of that changes in the second act when the story takes on a surreal and frighteningly accusatory eye-for-an-eye tone.

Furthermore, the play veers off on a predictable tangent of well-worn Kennedy tragedies – briskly eliminating Joseph Jr., Kathleen and Jack like ducks in a shooting gallery. Throughout act two, Rosemary – now in a mental institution, hearing "the whispers just beyond reach," – hovers over these calamities like a vengeful ghost, rehashing the notion of a Kennedy "curse." Her main target is her father who, faced with his own painful mortality, obliviously asks, "Is this the price of an old man’s love?"

The character of Rose is written as a repressed prude, torn between her duty and hatred toward her husband, and clinging immovably to her Roman Catholic faith. Yet, in act one, each character was endowed with varied, even sympathetic, dimensions. These same characters seem to disappear psychologically and emotionally (and, in some cases, physically) in the second act.

Russ Tutterow directs an elegant and impeccable production, featuring six stellar actors who do not resort to cliched impersonations despite their striking resemblance to the Kennedy clan. Michelle Courvais, faced with the difficult task of conveying the complexities of Rosemary’s illness, keeps unpeeling fascinating layers of her frustrated and defiant character.

Gene Cordon turns in the most charged and eviscerating performance as Joe Kennedy – always exhibiting a pained, barely suppressed impatience whenever he’s around Rosemary. Debra Ann Miller is appropriately tight-lipped and reserved as Rose. Other striking performances include John Gawlik as the handsome and adventurous Joseph, Jr.; Beth Hallaren as the spunky and unconventional Kathleen; and Tim Miller as a boyishly charismatic Jack.

Ann Davis’ evocative set design suggests sails and stained-glass windows, complemented by Jeremy Getz’s breezy and creamy Hyannis Port-inspired lighting. Stacy Ellen Rich meticulously recreates the late 1930’s with her elegantly cut East Coast sports attire and satiny formal wear.

There are moments of gracious and probing poetry in O’Connor’s drama, especially Rosemary’s attachment to rocks and her tendency to stare into the sunlight, prompting one of the most profound lines in the play: "How could something so bright turn so dark?" O’Connor, however, needs to apply the same rigid attention to character complexity and multiple perspectives on a rarely dramatized subject so evident in the first act to the rest of this intriguing but unsatisfying play.•

Prop Thtr’s production of "Rosemary" runs through November 11 at Victory Gardens Studio Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $20-$22. Call 773-871-3000. For more information on Prop Thtr’s 20th anniversary season, call 773-486-PROP.

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