The Kentucky Cycle

Pegasus Players

By Albert Williams

In the 1930s Eugene O’Neill sketched the outline of an epic cycle of plays, collectively titled “A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed,” in which the failures of one Anglo-Irish immigrant family from generation to generation would symbolize America’s corruption by greed and materialism. The mammoth project never came to fruition; the only part of it O’Neill completed was the flawed but rich A Touch of the Poet, revived at the Goodman last season.

In The Kentucky Cycle Robert Schenkkan seems to have set out to finish what O’Neill began. Not literally–the nine one-acts that comprise this two-part, six-hour saga don’t employ any of O’Neill’s characters–but in spirit. The southern-born, LA-based Schenkkan charts the rise and ruin of the Rowen clan over the years 1775 to 1975, using the dynasty’s degradation as a model of America at its worst: venal, violent, and vengeful, spiritually and environmentally destructive. A hugely ambitious but often clumsily didactic work, the play echoes themes familiar to readers of William Faulkner, Edna Ferber, and Margaret Mitchell but more often recalls a John Jakes tale as reconceived by Oliver Stone. It’s also a sprawling showcase for fine ensemble acting, and Pegasus Players’ superb Chicago premiere meets the script’s potential. Surpasses it, actually; even at its most laughably turgid, the show works as vigorous, sometimes engrossing storytelling thanks to evocative visual and aural design, actors who play their roles to the hilt (but never go over the top), and a director and fight choreographer who keep the action chugging along briskly and even excitingly.

The Kentucky Cycle is revisionism at its most blunt–a “vision of history from the mouths of those who lost,” as one actor’s earnest program bio puts it. While Schenkkan has gone to great lengths to work out the genealogy of his degraded dynasty, he’s been less careful to make the individual family members real people. They’re cardboard caricatures, every bit as simplistic as the characters in the John Ford, King Vidor, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney movie myths that Schenkkan is debunking. (A cable TV miniseries of The Kentucky Cycle is in the works, by the way; Kevin Costner’s directing.) Starting with an epigraph from Oliver Goldsmith–“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills at prey, / When wealth accumulates and men decay”–Schenkkan spins out not so much a drama as an indictment.

The charge: crimes against nature, as the noble wilderness of eastern Kentucky is stolen, squandered, and stripped bare while its indigenous people are swindled and slaughtered. The culprits: white males, almost without exception. There is one heroic white guy in the second part–a Jewish union organizer–but the rest are feckless and foolish or deceitful and dangerous. (Tellingly, the two real-life characters the play incorporates are a saintly woman, labor activist Mother Jones, and a sinful man, Confederate guerrilla William Clarke Quantrill.) The worst of the Rowens is the first: Michael, a cunning and ruthless Irishman who exults in the “grand land of opportunity” he’s invaded and boasts of the first man he killed: “I stepped on his neck and broke it like Saint Patrick crushing a snake.” After murdering another white man for running guns to the Indians (and stealing from his victim a gold pocket watch, which is handed down from generation to generation throughout the play), Rowen acquires a homestead from the Cherokee–paying them in guns (it’s OK if he does it) and blankets (infected with smallpox). Soon he’s planted not one but two family trees, fathering one son by a black slave he buys and a second by a Cherokee woman he kidnaps. (Morning Star also bears him a daughter, whom he predictably kills.)

By the time Kentucky wins statehood, Michael’s been murdered by his half-Indian son–stabbed in his bath just like Agamemnon, one of a slew of mythic and biblical allusions with which Schenkkan seeks to raise the work’s cultural level. (On at least one occasion pagan and Christian references collide, in a tall tale about Jesus visiting Baucis and Philemon.) The son, Patrick, starts a third Rowen branch when he marries a neighbor, Rebecca Talbert, and unwittingly launches a vicious feud with her family played out over two centuries of bloody battling.

The Rowens’ fortunes ebb and flow over the years. In one era they’re slave-owning farmers, in another they’re reduced to sharecroppers by the Talberts; later a Rowen woman emerges as a labor leader resisting the oppression of a Talbert-run coal company. By the end, the Rowen line is as barren as the mined-out land; all that’s left is the mummified corpse of Morning Star’s daughter, discovered by Michael Rowen’s great-great-great-grandson as he digs through the trash dump that was once the family farm.

Sound depressing? You bet. And toward the end, once the Rowens have been karmically cheated out of the land they stole, it gets to be pretty heavy going, as the plot is increasingly dictated by the playwright’s need to underline points we already got. But being an experienced screenwriter (his credits include the cable TV movie Crazy Horse), Schenkkan bolsters his preaching with plenty of action, eagerly executed in David Engel’s noisy, testosterone-charged fight staging: The Kentucky Cycle is plumb full of shootin’ and knifin’ and hittin’ and bitin’ and all-around bloodlettin’, the physical equivalent of the script’s many colorful similes (one character compares the Civil War to two cats tied together by their tails and “clawing each other’s assholes out”).

The vigorous first half is by far the more entertaining of the show’s two parts. I might even recommend that audiences catch part one and forget about part two, except that part two contains the single best one-act of the nine: “Tall Tales,” a witty, poignant little piece about how Jed Rowen, Patrick’s grandson, is cheated out of his property’s mineral rights by a city-slicker salesman from Standard Oil who courts Jed’s daughter Mary Anne while robbing Jed. Told by the middle-aged Mary Anne from the sidelines as we watch her younger self flirt with her family’s destroyer, the play stands on its own; in fact, it was originally written by Schenkkan as a wedding present for his wife Mary Anne, who was so charmed by it that she encouraged him to develop the material further. “Tall Tales” is the only play in the cycle whose action is driven by human nature rather than by the author’s propagandizing; ironically, The Kentucky Cycle is not unlike the Rowens’ homestead–a promising enterprise that started small and grew too big for its own good.

“Tall Tales” also introduces the show’s most powerful performance: Donna Freeburn’s magnificent portrayal of Mary Anne as she evolves from weary miner’s wife to vibrant labor leader, which gives the second part a jolt of energy it sorely needs. But The Kentucky Cycle is filled with wonderful acting, as the non-Equity cast essay their multiple roles with remarkable skill and commitment, aided by Joanne Witzkowski Kalec’s period-perfect costumes. Standouts include Nick Offerman, John Alcott, and Ian Christopher as most of the Rowen men, distinguishing one character from another while delineating their genetic and psychological connections; Elizabeth Laidlaw, putting her severe beauty to fine use as the abused, vengeful Morning Star; and David Engel in a sly turn as both the oil company agent who hoodwinks the Rowens and the union organizer who helps them fight back. But every actor is excellent, or at least excellently used by director Warner Crocker; there’s scarcely a false emotional moment on the stage.

Perhaps the best thing about the show is the intimacy it achieves despite its sprawling story and the large Truman College lecture hall in which it’s presented. Schenkkan’s script calls for the mechanics of stagecraft to be visible to the audience, and Crocker shrewdly executes that intention: eschewing elaborate technical effects, the production instead conveys an almost homemade feel as it depicts the lush Kentucky mountainside and, later, the grim mining community. Scott Cooper’s minimal set, Shannon McKinney’s brilliant lighting, and sound designer Joe Cerqua’s haunting aural ambience aid the honest, deeply felt acting in powerfully conveying Schenkkan’s story of paradise and its loss.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jennifer Girard.