Kennedy’s children and ‘the loss of heroes’

The dreams and disillusions of the Sixties’ generation are movingly portrayed in Robert Patrick’s award-winning play Kennedy’s Children which comes to the Town Hall the week after next.

Set in a 1970s New York bar, the play brings together a disparate group of characters who came of age in the Sixties but whose youthful idealism has since soured. A frustrated model, a flamboyant actor and a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran are among those who find themselves reflecting on the hopes and disappointments that have marked their generation.

The play is staged by Belfast company Centre Stage who are making their first visit to Galway. A founder member of the company is actress Roma Tomelty who comes from one of Northern Ireland’s most distinguished theatrical families; her father was the gifted playwright and actor Joseph Tomelty and her sister is actress Frances Tomelty. Ahead of Centre Stage’s Town Hall appearance she filled me in on the company’s ethos and talked about Kennedy’s Children.

“This is Centre Stage’s first time visiting Galway but we’ve been here in the North for about ten years,” Roma begins. “Our policy is to stage classic Northern drama, by playwrights like George Shiels. St John Ervine and Joseph Tomelty, as well as international drama that is rarely seen in Northern Ireland, hence a play like Kennedy’s Children.”

Roma expands on the content of Kennedy’s Children; “It’s not about the Kennedy family, we must establish that because people sometimes think they are coming to see a play about Jackie and Bobby and his own family. It’s about the generation that grew up with the promise of the Kennedy years and what happened to their dreams and energies once that promise wasn’t fulfilled. It’s about disillusion.

“The characters represent themes that were big in the Sixties. The character I play, Wanda, is a classic Kennedy-watcher, she believed totally in Camelot and in everything she read about them. She thought they were wonderful people and she entirely bought into that whole image that we all had of Kennedy.

“Then there is Mark, a Vietnam veteran and Rona, a hippy from the protest generation. Carla is a character who once wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe, she bought into that celebrity culture. Then there is Sparger, an Off Off Broadway actor, which is the scene that Robert Patrick himself started out in.”

Kennedy’s Children author Robert Patrick was born in Texas in 1937, the son of migrant workers. He moved to New York in the early 1960s and became a leading light in the Off Off Broadway theatre scene. He has written over 200 plays and Kennedy’s Children is among his best known, having been performed on five continents.

“Robert says he was impelled to write the play by the isolation he observed one day in a bar he used to drink in on the Lower East Side,” Roma reveals. “He felt the people there had never communicated with each other so it is about the fragmentation of life and lack of communication among these people. By the end of the play we’re sorry for them. Robert describes the play as being about ‘…the loss of heroes as guides for our lives’”.

Kennedy’s Children premiered in New York in 1972 but its first production made no impact. A year later it was staged in the small King’s Head pub in London, and was an immediate hit, transferring to the West End and later being produced on Broadway, where it won a Tony for actress Shirley Knight. The play continues to be performed regularly in both the United States and internationally and this latest production from Centre Stage also co-incides with the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

For Irish audiences there is the added interest of comparing it with Tom Murphy’s The White House which he later re-wrote as Conversations on a Homecoming. The White House and Kennedy’s Children premiered in the same year and both Murphy and Patrick use JFK as a touchstone figure in their characters’ lives. Both writers also chart how the optimism of the 1960s slowly turned into disenchantment and both plays take place in a bar, though one notable difference is that Patrick’s play comprises interlinking monologues.

Kennedy’s Children promises to be a rewarding evening of theatre. It is at the Town Hall on Friday, November 1 and Saturday, November 2 at 8pm.

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