Caught on History's Wheel

The Kentucky Cycle ends with a bang, and a burial

With College of the Mainland Arena Theatre's production of Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle, Part Two, the 1995-96 theater season gets off to a vital start -- or maybe the 1994-95 season comes to a vital finish, since this is the follow-up to Mainland Theatre's dynamic June mounting of Part One. Whichever, the continuation of this Southwest premiere remains must-see. Overcoming great obstacles and standing on its own so viably that having attended, or even read, Part One isn't required, the production is thrilling and unsettling.

Cycle's ambition is to lay bare the American myth by chronicling 200 years of three families in Eastern Kentucky. Part One -- five one-act plays spanning 1775-1861 -- began with Michael Rowen, an Irish indentured servant turned quintessential white colonizer, wresting land and a bride from the Indians, and ended with the Rowen progeny, reduced to sharecroppers, laying waste to both the land and its new owners, the Talberts, with whom they've been engaged in a fatal feud. Part Two -- four one-acts, covering the years 1885-1975 -- continues the cycle of greed and violence. The land is pillaged, forgotten, then left for dead.

In Tall Tales, the first one-act, a frontman for the Standard Oil Company bamboozles Michael Rowen's great-grandson Jed out of his land by posing as a traveling storyteller. Another good talker appears 35 years later in 1920 in Fire in the Hole: a union organizer. In this agitprop tragedy, first the organizer, then Jed's grown daughter Mary Anne, rally embattled coal miners to join the union and fight the abusive mine boss. In Which Side Are You On?, Mary Anne's son Joshua continues the good fight for his "family" in 1954 as president of the union. But when he compromises with the company owner -- a Talbert -- over safety regulations, disaster strikes. Twenty-one years later, in The War on Poverty, an aging Joshua, on a sort of a vision quest as he wanders the historical terrain, attempts to heal spiritual, cosmological and geographical wounds.

Like Part One, Part Two isn't perfect. Its revisionist history is both reductive and arbitrary. The World Wars, for instance, are unaccountably excluded. The Korean War is brought up only through a Marine who returns home not wanting to talk about it. Didn't the Depression depress the South? Didn't McCarthy see red in the hills, too? Not probing the plight of Native Americans seems a particular mistake, given that Part One opened with this as a concern. And while one of the three Kentucky clans traced over the 200 years is black, race relations -- not to mention civil rights -- are given such short shrift. That's more than can be said for the women's movement, which isn't even alluded to. Though Schenkkan takes on a lot -- maybe too much -- he also leaves us wishing he'd taken on a little more, or at least some things a little different.

He also gets in his own way. It seems pat when J.T., the duplicitous storyteller of Tall Tales, has an instantaneous change of heart after a teenage Mary Anne, with whom he's flirted, prevents her intended from killing him. Mary Anne, stereotyped as a sweet young hillbilly thing, becomes even more problematic when the sparks between her as a matron in Fire in the Hole and a union organizer, sparks Schenkkan goes out of his way to suggest, are dropped in order to turn her into a pillar of union rectitude. Even though Schenkkan obviously wants us to care about the characters, they're often written in shorthand, with an "issue" to represent rather than personalities to convey. When it comes to messages, Schenkkan never misses an opportunity to point out that American history isn't what it necessarily seems, a cry that isn't all that revolutionary anymore.

Equally old is Schenkkan's dialogue. Sometimes his Kentucky speak is hokey: "J.T., afore you get to spinnin' us a yarn, maybe you could say a word or two 'bout what's goin' on out in the world." Sometimes it's hackneyed: "I warned you," Mary Anne says to the organizer, "don't you be bringin' no trouble into my house." Organizer: "Seems to me whatever troubles you got was here a long time 'fore I showed up."

But there's more to praise than to criticize. Epic moment after epic moment dramatized over a landscape of desperate lives and histories lends the play cycle power and tension. The litany of ironies are devastating. On the only occasion that he tells the truth, con man J.T. isn't believed, so he saves neither Jed's land, nor young Mary Anne's future nor his own soul. The union organizer knows everything about the lives of the miners he represents without really knowing nothing of the miners themselves. When the three families finally put down their feud and work together, they still bring on destruction. Schenkkan, to his credit, refuses to shy away from moral questions. How are we to understand ourselves, Schenkkan asks, when we are as good as our word -- and as bad? How do you gauge the short term and the long term if the two are inextricably bound?

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