If a Tony were awarded for ambition, tenacity and conviction, no one would deny playwright Robert Schenkkan, director Warner Shook and producer David Richenthal a prime shot at the honor. When Schenkkan’s sprawling “Kentucky Cycle” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in April 1992, there was no New York production in the offing, and none of the usual Broadway players was willing to gamble on an overwhelmingly grim nine-play, six-hour work spanning two centuries of violent eastern Kentucky history, regardless of its enthusiastic reception at Seattle’s Intiman Theater and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.
It took a driven producer — a novice at that, with just one Off Broadway production notch on his belt — along with $ 2 million and the hoped-for star draw of Stacy Keach to finally bring “The Kentucky Cycle” to New York. That’s what producing should be about.
Of course, theatergoers don’t buy intentions, no matter how honorable. Even if all six hours of “The Kentucky Cycle” made for a transcendent experience — even if it merely made for gripping but consistently entertaining theater — it would still require an enormous act of faith on the part of audiences, requiring two evenings or a full-day marathon, at a top price of $ 100.
And while several acts in “The Kentucky Cycle” churn with a documentary power , they’re submerged in a work remarkable for the crudeness of its writing and staging and the wide variability of the performances.
So while critical reception will surely be mixed, word of mouth will inevitably be that the show doesn’t justify the stiff commitment of time and money. It will have a rough time surviving the holiday period.
Beginning in 1775, Schenkkan spins out the stories of three families across 200 years, from the European conquest of the Cumberland frontier to the usurpation of the land by Northern business and its disastrous effect on both the gentle land and its ungentle inhabitants. It’s a history of violence breeding violence, of the repeated smashing of dreams by ever more distant forces.
The central family patriarch is Michael Rowen (Keach), a self-described “necessary animal” cunning enough in the first two parts to stake a piece of Cherokee land and brutally take a Cherokee wife (Lillian Garrett-Groag), who bears him a son (Scott MacDonald) he fears and a daughter he murders at birth.
The son marries Rebecca Talbert (Katherine Hiler), whose neighboring family figures next in this chronology. But as it happens, Michael has fathered another son, Jesse (Ronald William Lawrence), by Sallie Biggs (Gail Grate), a slave purchased in Louisville for $ 37, and the Biggses become the third family tree followed.
The first half of “The Kentucky Cycle” concerns the sins of the father being visited upon the sons; here are murder, infanticide, patricide and many lesser forms of family betrayal, as well as a humiliating twist in which the Talberts gain ownership of the Rowen homestead and Michael and his family are forced to become sharecroppers on their own land.
Whether or not these scenes are representative of others playing out on neighboring homesteads, the effect ultimately is small-scale: a private feud that’s colorful but not endlessly engaging.
The advent of the Civil War brings with it a change that forces the three families onto a much larger stage. At the start of the second part, beginning in 1890, J.T. Wells (Gregory Itzin) has come to the area, proclaiming himself a storyteller — he is splendid in putting over “Romeo and Juliet” as a local tale — but who is in fact a lackey for coal interests buying “mineral rights” cheap from the descendants of Michael Rowen, with ruinous consequences.
In these, the play’s two most riveting sections, both the land and the people who work it become victims of forces so far beyond their ken that they don’t stand a chance against them.
It’s no longer a matter of Hatfields and McCoys, but of ignorant bumpkins being squashed by robber barons, then being roused by the likes of Mother Jones (Garrett-Groag) to the formation of the United Mine Workers union.
These two plays, “Tall Tales” and “Fire in the Hole,” could well stand alone; their power must recall the adrenaline rush felt by audiences at Group Theater performances in the ’30s. Unfortunately, they’re followed by two numbingly boring sections set in 1954 and 1975 and dealing with union-vs.-mining politics and the various corruptions that further poison the families. A final scene that attempts to bring the cycle full-circle falls completely flat.
The production design (Michael Olich, sets, and Peter Maradudin, lighting) is in the Open Theater tradition: a bare, raked stage, with the actors sitting around a perimeter bisected by an underutilized ramp, none of which is well-suited to the Royale. The show cries for a thrust stage and greater intimacy with the audience.
Under Shook, the performances are a mishmash of styles ranging from warmly ingratiating to arch and declamatory — but those qualities describe the writing , as well. It ranges from occasionally poetic to more frequently stilted, and for long passages the play just stops dead in its tracks. Cliches abound.
Keach brings a needed self-assurance and occasional humor to the proceedings. Standout players include Itzin, whose smooth-talking storyteller seems to have strolled in from “Appalachian Spring,” Hiler as the young women, Grate and Lawrence as the slave mother and son, and Garrett-Groag as many of the Rowens and, later, Mother Jones. Much of the acting from the ensemble, however, is serviceable at best.
Given a stronger ending — one that actually wrapped up these interwoven family histories — the earlier shortcomings of “The Kentucky Cycle” might not be as glaring as they are. As it is, the play ends with Michael Rowen’s great-great-great-grandson as much in the dark about life as his ancestor. Inevitable this may be, but it’s not terrifically edifying.