The Kentucky Cycle, Robert Schenkkan's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 nine-play cycle following one Appalachian family over the course of two centuries, is an ambitious piece, especially for a Concord company whose usual fare is musicals, Nunsense shows, and crowd-pleasing comedies. On opening night, Willows artistic director Richard Elliott said that "this is a really long-awaited show," which would have been equally true if he hadn't appended "awaited." It's a six-hour show spread over two nights, or sometimes over a same-day marathon of a matinee and evening show.
Ostensibly a series of interlinked short plays but really chapters of fictional family history jumping ahead twenty to forty years at a time, the cycle establishes right away that it's not some Thanksgiving pageant, even if Melissa Torchia's buckskins and Peter Crompton's rotating big-pile-of-wood set make it look like one.
A 1775 meeting between frontiersmen and Cherokee turns bloody in a hurry, and not in the way you might expect. Things don't get any nicer from there. The thread follows the descendants of Michael Rowen, an escaped Irish indentured servant who also happens to be a murderer, rapist, and all-around nasty piece of work, and by extension two other families whose destinies seem to be linked to the Rowens: the Biggses, descended from Michael Rowen's slave, and the landholding Talberts, who find themselves continually at odds with the hard-luck Rowens.
The epic scope of the piece is impressive, from early settlers to the Civil War, sharecroppers, and the devastation of the land (and people) by coal-mining concerns. The scenes themselves are often engaging and surprisingly dark in tone, but the poetic soliloquies that begin or end them are relatively weak. The second half is a bit of a slog, especially a tedious union-organizing chapter that goes on forever before intermission.
The short plays aren't really self-contained and depend on each other for weight and context, but because each bit leaps forward so much in time it's not a cohesive narrative. The first half lays the groundwork for a perfectly good blood feud that's completely forgotten in the second half, and outcast family members are never heard from again. It's mostly loose ends held together by a single strand. An attempt at the end to tie it all together would be more effective if it weren't so transparent, or if there were enough content in the last chapter for it to stand on its own. As it stands, it feels like a tacked-on epilogue because you have to end it somewhere, particularly after six hours and 200 years.
The Willows production is serviceable, but is hampered by limp performances and Elliott's often static staging, in which two or three people talk while five or six others just stand around listlessly. There are some strong sunsets and sound effects, but these are at times too strong, such as the sharply shifting spotlights in Robert Anderson's lighting design, or Sean McStravick's deafening birdcalls. A devastating fire is undermined by a distractingly swirly light show and what sounds like oddly upbeat hammered-dulcimer music.
There are a few strong performances amid the ensemble cast, but they're more specific to a role than to an actor. Tim Hendrixson gives fiendish founding father Michael a roguish charm, but mostly just glowers in his later roles as bloody-minded preacher Ezekiel Rowen and boorish mine worker Tommy Jackson. As Jed Rowen, a haunted Confederate soldier with a gentle smile, Cassidy Brown lends weight to the last chapter of the first half, a revenge story set amid the Civil War, but as older Jed and union official Joshua Rowen in the second half, he doesn't go much beyond a basic weariness. Letitia Trattner is fine as Michael Rowen's silently struggling, captured Cherokee bride in "The Courtship of Morning Star," but when it comes time for her to talk, she narrates like a teenager at an open poetry reading.
That such a mammoth work holds one's attention at all, at least for the first few hours, is no small thing, but, perversely enough, the best thing about The Kentucky Cycle is the strong sense it gives that Kentucky is the last place in the world you'd want to be.
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