'Cycle,' a pioneering saga of life

September 14, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Washington -- In a note in the program for the Kennedy Center's pre-Broadway production of "The Kentucky Cycle," playwright Robert Schenkkan explains that he began this epic work, which consists of nine one-act plays, with the playlet called "Tall Tales."

And indeed, "Tall Tales" is the pivotal segment of this two-part, six-hour Pulitzer Prize-winning saga -- a work that is as American as the frontier where it begins, as ambitious as the pioneers who supposedly "tamed" it, and as important as history itself, even though it is less compelling in the early stretches than in the more chillingly familiar scenes from our own century.

"Tall Tales" is about a cynical storyteller who tells a starry-eyed teen-age girl, "Truth? Hell, woman, there ain't no such thing. All there is is stories!" "The Kentucky Cycle" is also a set of stories, but whether they are true is ultimately of less consequence than whether Schenkkan makes us believe them (he does) and whether they tell us anything about ourselves (they do).

What they tell us isn't subtle, but the chapters of history that Schenkkan relates weren't subtle, either. His opus begins with a man holding another at gunpoint, and although the final play takes place seven generations and 200 years later, it also features a man holding another at gunpoint.

This is one of many motifs that repeat throughout the production and are highlighted by Warner Shook's sensitive, restrained direction. Dreams and lists of names -- both suffused with death -- also show up with unsettling frequency.

There are visual motifs as well. The most powerful is the large plot of dirt that fills the middle of the stage at the start of the drama. It represents the rich Kentucky soil, and in the opening playlet it is taken from the Cherokees by the trickery of an Irishman named Rowen, who came to these shores as an indentured servant, murdered his master and hasn't looked back.

This launches a cycle in which the fate of Rowen and the offspring he sires with a Cherokee wife becomes intertwined with the fates of a neighboring white family named Talbert and a black family named Biggs.

As the Rowens and Talberts engage in a blood feud and the land passes back and forth between them, the set's central square of dirt is covered over, bit by bit, by wood planks, until it is completely concealed just before the coal companies arrive to decimate the landscape entirely. Only in the concluding scene is one small square of earth uncovered, when the last of the Rowen clan finally begins to question his actions, inheritance and most crucially, his history.

A cast of 20 portrays the play's multiple roles, making the transition from one generation to the next with minimal confusion to the audience. This may be partly due to the fact that most of this ensemble of actors -- two of whose most stunning members are lively Katherine Hiler and oily Gregory Itzin -- have been together since the show debuted in Seattle in 1991. However, newcomer Stacy Keach fits in seamlessly and contributes a forceful presence.

Due to its scope and episodic nature, "The Kentucky Cycle" is a logical choice for a miniseries, and it is, in fact, being reworked in that format by HBO. But no matter how faithful the miniseries is, it won't be able to duplicate the live, shared experience that makes theatergoers part of a history that may have shaped our character even more deeply than the characters on stage.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Kentucky Cycle"

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: Part I is staged at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; Part II is staged at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 23

Tickets: $38-$50 for each part

Call: (800) 444-1324

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