When his family and neighbors are wiped out at the height of the Indian Wars in 1775, Michael Rowen—patriarch of the clan whose history is chronicled in The Kentucky Cycle—tracks their Cherokee attackers through the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Catching up with them on a peak overlooking a secluded valley, he’s surprisingly dry-eyed and businesslike. “One man’s profit is another man’s dead wife,” he says, offering to trade guns for land and gunpowder for his own security. When the Cherokees balk, Rowen throws in a couple of blankets to clinch the deal—blankets from a household that just succumbed to smallpox. Months later, he will drag home by her hair the tribe’s only surviving woman and start a new family.
Rowen is clearly willing to wait a long time to make a point, and the same might be said of Robert Schenkkan, the author who dreamed him up. It takes just over six hours for the sometimes hokey, often exhilarating Rowen family saga to come full circle at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. By the time Michael’s great-great-great-grandson stands on this same spot in eastern Kentucky, negotiating with coal company executives who want to strip-mine what’s left of a devastated countryside, more than 200 years and much bloodshed have ravaged the valley below. A ruthless family has finally come to an ignominious end, but in the process, a land of promise has been reduced to an impoverished wasteland.
As might be gathered, The Kentucky Cycle is American myth-making of an epic sort: a two-part, nine-play, flawed but vastly entertaining exploration of how a region—and by extension, a continent—got trashed. While not wholly satisfying as metaphors for American greed and pigheadedness, the Rowens and their various antagonists are a supremely entertaining bunch. Lying in wait for the better part of a generation so they canavenge themselves on one another’s children, they’re nearly as captivating as they are monstrous.
The cycle’s two halves (which can be seen either on consecutive weeknights or as an all-day marathon on weekends) are remarkably different in form. Compared to Part 2’s large-scale struggle, Part 1 is relatively intimate and anecdotal—a series of deceptions and personal reversals in which the Rowens spend the better part of a century feuding with, wedding, and attempting to undermine the neighboring Talbert clan. The tactics of both families tend to be brutal, and ironically, it’s almost always an uncharacteristic act of kindness that allows a family member or two to survive the carnage and carry the feud to the next generation.
Through the machinations of these warring neighbors, the author manages to brush in some amazingly cogent explanations of the economic forces that shaped early U.S. history. The cycle’s fourth play—a riveting bankruptcy proceeding conducted at gunpoint against Rowen’s son, Patrick—is such a clear illustration of how independent farmers were turned into sharecroppers by recessionary pressures after the War of 1812 that economics teachers could easily justify busing their classes to the KenCen to see it. Which is not to say the scene plays like a lecture. As Patrick is humiliated before his sons, stripped of everything he owns, and informed that one of those “possessions” (a slave named Jesse Biggs) is actually his half-brother, the playwright is adroitly stoking the embers of Rowen family rage. They’ll blaze again in Part 1’s apocalyptic finale—a montage of fiery Civil War tableaux in which the two families stand in for a nation that’s tearing itself to pieces. At this war’s conclusion, the only Talberts left as the lights fade are a pair of teen-age girls. As a Rowen male convinces his father to spare them—“War’s over, paw; besides, they’s just women, ‘n’ what can women do?”—the girls begin quietly chanting the names of their attackers. Their revenge may be a long time coming, but it will be devastating.
For more than half its length, Part 2 belongs to the women. The Talbert girls marry into a family that owns a coal company, while the Rowens join the ranks of destitute mine workers. Schenkkan stumbles a bit by making a Rowen matriarch the focal point for a plot line about unionizing the mines. There’s nothing wrong with the gambit logically, but since she’s a stoic, long-suffering dead ringer for Ma Joad, she pretty much guarantees that the story will begin to play like The Grapes of Wrath meetsMatewan. As the saga continues and violent confrontation gives way finally to such less dramatizable conflict as union corruption and corporate malfeasance, the tension begins to wind down. The production continues exploiting the aftershocks of earlier scenes—by having, say, the same actors who originally portrayed Michael Rowen and the Indians play the Rowen descendant who’s a union boss and his mine-owner antagonists—but the resonances are getting fainter.
Still, it isn’t often that stage artists take on topics quite like these. And while the spectacle of a society seemingly bent on stripping an entire region of its resources, beauty, and habitability may not lend itself to neat dramatization, the attempt is certainly intriguing. Schenkkan is aided in production by an adept design team, and the compelling directorial vision of Warner Shook, who seems fond of stage pictures that are simple but carry epic weight.
Perhaps the most evocative of these is a basic conceit involving the stage floor. Mostly exposed earth as the play begins, it is slowly covered with a metallic-looking platform until, by the end of Part 1, all traces of the rich, dark soil have been eradicated. Then, in Part 2, as designer Peter Maradudin bakes the stage with harsh white spotlights, Michael Olich’s back wall crashes down at an angle, bringing with it the full weight of industry to squash the landscape and its populace.
And what a populace—portrayed here by actors who double, triple, and quadruple in roles that mine nuances from two centuries of changing sensibilities. Stacy Keach plays Michael Rowen and a number of his descendants during the course of the play, gradually modulating a thick Irish accent until it becomes a convincing Appalachian twang. His Cherokee wife is vehemently played by Lillian Garrett-Groag, who crops up later as var iously ferocious feminists, includ ing the legendary Mother Jones. Scott MacDonald is turmoil personified as two Rowens separated by a century, both of whom are ultimately undone by their own fierceness. Jacob (Tuck) Milligan brings evenness and a seductive charm to conciliators in each half—Civil War-era Jed Rowen in the first, and a union organizer in the second. And though the part seems hackneyed, Jeanne Paulsen is a Rock of Gibraltar as the Rowen who holds the pro-union forces together at crucial moments. Ronald William Lawrence and Gail Grate swiftly make indelible impressions as a raft of African-American characters, from slaves to gunrunners to businesspersons. And Gregory Itzin is deliciously deceptive both as an underhanded creditor and as a breathtaking storyteller who buys up mineral rights for a song.
Whether all this talent and expertise combined with Schenkkan’s Pulitzer Prize will be enough to make audiences line up for two evenings at Broadway prices is debatable. The Post‘s dismissive, loved-Keach-hated-the-play review, coupled with audiences’ natural skepticism about sitting in one place for six hours, will probably mean the kind of mainstream audience that cheered the show in its two SRO engagements on the West Coast won’t show up in D.C. Add the preposterous objections of a few ardent, evidently metaphorically challenged Kentuckians who’ve mistaken Schenkkan’s depiction of white European insensitivity for a diatribe against their state, and there’ll doubtlessly be plenty of good seats available. That’s a shame, because while the show is a bit out of its depth when trying to be the sort of mythic tale of mistrust, greed, and cruelty that might have shocked the Greeks, it’s a consistently entertaining revenge drama.
It’s also a helluva lot more fun than Keach’s previous Eisenhower Theater vehicle—a dreadful, gimmicky whodunit called Solitary Confinement, which received a Post rave two years ago. The Kentucky Cycle‘s producers will no doubt take comfort from the fact that, while Confinement played to big D.C. crowds, it went on to ignominy and a two-week run in New York, while Lost in Yonkers, that other Pulitzer-winner the Post panned, played for years.