The Kentucky Cycle

Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

at National Pastime

Like the ruthless, vengeful Rowen clan it chronicles, Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle is nothing if not ambitious. A six-hour epic consisting of nine one-acts, it charts a rural family’s 200-year struggle to surmount their founding father’s legacy of greed and barbarism. Receiving international attention when it premiered at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre in 1991, it moved two years later to the Royale Theatre on Broadway. There it died a quick 33-performance death, perhaps partly because it was eclipsed by Angels in America. Since then the gloomy but demanding cycle, with its lengthy playing time and 21-person cast, has received only a handful of professional productions–and hasn’t been seen in Chicago since Pegasus Players lost their shirts on it in 1996.

Deeply flawed and frustratingly uneven, Schenkkan’s work might be easy to dismiss as tortured white liberal guilt run amok. But especially in this calm, unflinchingly honest Infamous Commonwealth Theatre production, The Kentucky Cycle offers considerable theatrical ingenuity and several disquieting truths. Its insistence that audiences rethink American mythology comes at an opportune time. As the Bush administration gears up to enforce the presence of “democracy” wherever it chooses, it’s useful to remember our nation’s shadowy, even ignoble practices as well as its lofty ideals.

The first two plays set the tone and course for everything that follows. The first, “Masters of the Trade,” is set in 1775 and centers on newly arrived Irish immigrant Michael Rowen, the clan’s Agamemnon (in play number three he’s murdered in a bathtub by a family member). Dead set on staking his claim in Kentucky’s untamed Cumberland Plateau, where he believes he can become “something new, something different,” he trades rifles, powder, and shot to the local Cherokee–the same tribe that recently slaughtered his wife and children–for a small parcel of their land. He scoffs at the Cherokee warning that his property is cursed, exhibiting the kind of headstrong bravado that will doom his bloodline, and to prove his loyalty to the Indians he murders his white trading partner, then offers the tribe free wool blankets–infested with smallpox.

“Masters of the Trade” is a harrowing, dramatically efficient 30-minute opener to the audacious, historically resonant cycle, which is divided into two performances. In the second play, however, Schenkkan abandons psychological and historical subtlety in favor of redundancy and heavy-handedness: after depicting his protagonist as a cold-blooded individualist in the first play, he offers additional, needless evidence of Rowen’s sociopathology in “The Courtship of Morning Star.” A series of flabby tableaux shows him dragging home a young Cherokee woman, Morning Star, repeatedly raping her, then claiming her as a wife. Though she doesn’t understand English, he explains to her that he’s been murdering people to protect his interests since he was seven, because “blood is the coin of the realm.” Now he’s gotten the land and wealth he’s always dreamed of and wants a family because he feels empty. After slitting Morning Star’s Achilles tendon to keep her from running away, he warns her that if she bears him a daughter he’ll “leave it on the mountains for the crows.” In short, Michael Rowen is really, really bad. America is founded on deceit and brutality. Got it.

Schenkkan continues to veer back and forth between making dramatic points, then belaboring them or introducing pointless local color as he follows Rowen’s descendants from the lawless homestead years to the confusion of early statehood to the ravages of the Civil War to profiteering after Reconstruction. For every theatrically rigorous play like the fourth one, “Ties That Bind”–an absorbing courtroom drama in which Rowen’s son, Patrick, loses everything and ends up a sharecropper on his own land–there’s a choppy, amateurish one like the fifth, “God’s Great Supper,” in which actors depict the Civil War by running around pretending to shoot one another. Even the cycle’s richest vein–a deadly feud between the Rowens and Patrick’s in-laws, the Talberts–sometimes degenerates into a hillbilly soap opera.

Schenkkan may aspire to set the record straight, but no woman has a story of her own until the sixth and seventh plays. Otherwise the female characters are sensible, principled appendages to prideful, pigheaded husbands. Black characters are never more than incidental in the first seven plays even though Patrick’s slave, Jesse, turns out to be his brother. Schenkkan does indict white male opportunism, but he’s so eager to make his point that he forgets to create real people full of contradictory impulses, driven as much by noble sentiments as self-interest. The Rowens may terrify, traumatize, or intrigue, but like their founding patriarch, they’re rarely human.

For all its flaws, The Kentucky Cycle still manages to twist the gut with its depiction of cruelty, ambition, and self-destructiveness. Schenkkan may turn the grays of life into black and white, but the horrifying underlying truths of how this country was formed are still visible. The lion’s share of the credit for this goes to Infamous Commonwealth directors Jason Kae and Genevieve Thompson and their committed cast: they supply the emotional nuance and moral ambivalence that Schenkkan omits. Shrewdly underplaying the turgid script, the actors focus on the dynamic relations among the characters rather than facile displays of emotion. But when the story requires emotional extremes, they deliver the goods. Maintaining their candor and honesty over six arduous hours, they make it easy to believe in this overwrought saga–or at least to wait without too much discomfort for the trying passages to be over. This production makes Schenkkan’s relentless depiction of the worst of the American character ring disturbingly true.

The Kentucky Cycle

When: Through 7/3: program one Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 PM; program two, Sat 8 PM, Sun 4 PM

Where: National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway

Price: $18, $30 for both programs

Info: 312-458-9780

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Starr.