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All in the Family

The Kentucky Cycle traces the ties that bind and sometimes strangle

"It ain't just dirt. It's land. It's a live thing," proclaims one member of the Rowen clan, ready to do anything imaginable -- and much that isn't -- for a piece of fertile eastern Kentucky soil. The time is 1819, but this particular Rowen's forebears also lived by this portentous credo, as will Rowen descendants. Passing for a family motto, it's even more forbidding than it sounds, since in the Rowen lay of the land, as the patriarch explains, "Blood's just the coin of the realm, and it's important to keep strict accounts and pay your debts." Generations of Rowens do exactly this, even if the currency involves another type of blood -- blood relations.

Such is the territory of Part One of Austin native Robert Schenkkan's 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle, an epic saga of American historical mythology, rural Kentucky-style. In a real coup, it's receiving its Southwest premiere at the little College of the Mainland Theatre; I don't know how director Jack Westin pulled off securing the rights (he says that the Alley and Stages helped), but with $13 the highest price ticket in a pristine theater so intimate that there's not one bad seat in the 180-seat house, it's well worth the trek to Texas City to experience this important text and its equally important production, both of which are highly ambitious -- and both of which are seriously flawed.

Part One, consisting of five one-act plays, covers the period from 1775 to 1861 in broad, dramatic strokes that emphasize plot above all else. In the first play, Masters of the Trade, ruthless adventurer Michael Rowen establishes his estate by swindling land from the Cherokee and killing anyone in his way. In play number two, The Courtship of Morning Star, this self-styled "necessary animal" steals a squaw for a wife, planning to breed an heir so that the land will endure in his name. Years later, in The Homecoming, that heir, Michael's son Patrick, kills his father after discovering that because he has his mother's Indian looks, he is to be denied his inheritance. Patrick also reluctantly kills the law-abiding father of the girl he intends to marry. In play four, Ties that Bind, the victim's son/Patrick's brother-in-law, Jeremiah Talbert, sees to Patrick's downfall by turning the debt-ridden farmer into his sharecropper. A generation or two later, during the Civil War, in God's Great Supper, Patrick's son Ezekiel and grandson Jed seek their revenge on Talbert's son Richard, laying waste to the land as well as to most of the Talbert family, sparing only the Talbert women. "War's over," Jed announces, setting the stage for Part Two of The Kentucky Cycle. "And 'sides, they're just women. What can women do?"

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Though Schenkkan aspires to the grandeur of Greek tragedy (children are sacrificed, houses become cursed, families fatally feud), what he achieves instead is a sort of highbrow soap opera, with the Rowen's dynastic ambitions woven into swatches from the fabric of historical America. Schenkkan finds his purpose in debunking romantic mythology, and though this notion isn't as revelatory as it was three decades ago when Arthur Kopit took on the Wild West in Indians, Schenkkan nevertheless attains powerful dramatic effect by serving as the conscience to our collective chronicles, particularly when setting out to redefine the notion of the heroic pioneer and the allure of rugged individualism.

Because Schenkkan's tales of treachery, betrayal, revenge, calculation and machination are so extreme -- so life-and-death -- the audience is kept thrillingly off-guard. This is, as the Cherokee warn, "dark and bloody land": even a loving mother isn't above conspiring against her beloved son. When a father defends taking desperate measures by saying that everything he did was for his family, the play approaches the tragic heights of Greek drama Schenkkan set his sights on.

Approaches, but doesn't reach. Epic breadth aside, The Kentucky Cycle isn't as satisfyingly all-encompassing as it wants to be. Some historical moments, such as the American Revolution, are glossed over, while others, like the Spanish American War, are inexplicably skipped. Slavery is reduced to a slave pleading with her master not to sell her and the son she bore him. Similarly cursory treatment is given to Native Americans. So while Schenkkan's intent is to explain, the effect is to oversimplify; there's too much on Schenkkan's dramaturgical plate and, paradoxically, not enough. Traditions, lore and the American psyche all fall to the wayside in favor of advancing the Rowens' terrible lineage.

Too, characters are so bald that they aren't even types; they're stances, lacking passions "grand" enough to make them feel alive. Efforts to add substance through symbolism -- a son born with teeth, a father fatefully blinded before being stabbed -- are either underdeveloped or overdone. Motifs are sledgehammered home across the five plays, as if Schenkkan didn't trust us to make the necessary connections. Certain plot developments -- a little boy caught up in murderous plans -- are manipulative; others -- a return from war during a family funeral -- are too convenient. That still others are cliched or occur off-stage might explain Schenkkan's dependence upon what he calls "messages." Heavy-handed and awkward, they're flailing attempts as backwoods lyricism. If the play's title didn't situate us geographically, I'd have no idea where in the South the story takes place.

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