The mountains are rustic and the moral landscape bleak in this Michener-esque saga about eastern Kentucky culture as told through several generations of lawless pioneers.
Playwright Robert Schenkkan’s six-hour, two-part slice of Americana may rank as the year’s boldest theatrical gamble with its $ 2.5 million budget. Fortunately, the 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama plants its best foot forward in its Broadway tuneup at the Kennedy Center.
The addition of Stacy Keach brings a welcome star presence to a polished ensemble brought together at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum last year. The veteran performer deftly anchors the production without overshadowing the yeoman troupe of unknowns. Each performs multiple roles in a production that compresses 200 years of history into nine vignettes in two parts.
In the first, author Schenkkan uses distinctively broad brush strokes to paint a portrait of greed, revenge and other sins committed by an Irish settler (Keach) and his offspring. Characters are drawn in stark stereotype. Anger is the dominant emotion, and it erupts violently and predictably. (Small wonder many born-and-bred Kentuckians are offended by the play.)
Part Two, by contrast, offers a detailed look at a hillbilly culture that is sadly vulnerable to swindle and oppression. It reveals a troubling tapestry of frailties and fears, climaxing with a rebellion against the 20th-century mining companies that exploit the culture and desecrate the landscape. Although predictable, the moment does not disappoint. The drama is sustained and powerful , more than rewarding the audience for its hefty investment.
Under director Warner Shook’s steady hand, action is consistently lively, and the many poignant moments are also spotlighted with care.
“Cycle” figures to be a gamble for Broadway. But for absorbing drama and rich theater, it’s certain to be one of the season’s highlights.