All in the Family

"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?"

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.

But I do know where Mainland's production occurs: on scenic designer Thom Guthrie's astoundingly impressionistic set of ragged burlap drapes and somber ridged tiers, all dominated by a huge geometric pit of rich, brown, pungent Mother Earth. The actors build fires on it when in the wilderness, add a chair on a plank to suggest a homestead, work a nearby water pump in the era of progress. It even sports a creek, and when foolish young lovers talk about their dreams, Guthrie, who also designed the lights, has the water sharply reflect their faces, a mirror to transparent souls. And in some of the boldest, most overpowering lighting schemes I've ever seen, Guthrie fills the dark, suggestive play with dark, suggestive spaces, luxuriating in the potency of black. Rife with moody shadows, the atmosphere yields hints of forbidden violets, otherworldly greens, blood reds. And in dreamlike scenes in which women chant the names of their dead, and when tortured Jed tells a horrific story from his life, overhead spots draw attention to eyes that are blackened hollow. Guthrie is one of the stars of the show.

So are costumer Clare Marie Verheyen, whose deerskins, buckskins, calicos and uniforms are an authentic-looking sight, and sound designer Craig Seanor, whose tom-toms, tribal pipes, crickets and chirpings create just the right feel as both background and chorus. About the only technical letdown are the accents, which range from butchered Irish to cartoonish Cherokee to wishful Kentuckian.

Jack Westin's direction doesn't have the urgent sweep befitting an epic, nor does it make the familial battles personal enough. Still, it is deft and fluid (and economical; the show comes in at two and a half hours, with intermission). He ably switches from gritty realism to eerie dream sequences, transforms a squaw's cape into swaddling clothes right before our eyes and has a solitary torch carried across the stage when a house is about to be burned, the smoke we inhale helping to communicate much. He helpfully provides a genealogical chart in the program, but thanks to his stage clarity it's not needed. Besides the grace with which he maneuvers some two dozen actors, his best touch might be in the prologue: actors enter from all accessways with great ceremony, take turns solemnly introducing the text and slowly back away into the distance, adhering to Schenkkan's wish that the production be a swarm of ominous communal effort.

The show doesn't feel over after Part One, and, of course, it's not. But in the fifth play a character calls for an end to the vicious Kentucky cycle of violence, and Westin underplays the closure this climax could have provided. The curtain falls to suggestions of future reckonings, but it's too little, too late. And while it's indeed arguable that Part One should leave us hanging, Part Two (1885 to 1975) won't be produced until September. I'm not sure how long audience members' memories will last -- or in fact should last.

To underscore the generational aspect, Westin overlaps casting from family to family in play to play. Rod Todd has the lion's share of parts, playing all the Rowen protagonists; he's fervent more than anything else. Cliff Mabry is more up to the challenge, first as wily Jeremiah, then as his foppish son Richard. But regardless of acting capabilities, the reason to see Westin's production is the same reason that Schenkkan won acclaim: reach, not grasp.

The Kentucky Cycle, Part One, plays through June 25 at College of the Mainland Arena Theatre, 1200 Amburn Road, Texas City, 280-3991 or (409) 938-1211, ext. 345.

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Peter Szatmary