Caught on History's Wheel

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?

And Schenkkan revels in that most theatrical of devices, symbols, especially in the one-act coda that ends the play cycle. Three breathtaking images lift The Kentucky Cycle into the stratosphere, bestowing upon it a sort of sanctification. First, Joshua reburies what he doesn't know is his forefather Michael's infant Indian daughter, thereby, wittingly and unwittingly alike, protecting the land from progress. Second, his ghostly ancestors erupt from their unmarked graves to reclaim their legacy. Third, he spies a lone wolf but doesn't shoot it, imploring the "son of a bitch" to run, damn it, run. In the finale, in one spectacular flourish, Schenkkan debunks the myth of unlimited natural resources, the endless frontier, heroic pioneers and rugged individualism.

With one exception, scenic designer Thom Guthrie wisely avoids adding flourish to the magnificent set he created for Part One, which is dominated by a vast geometric pit of earth. But the one exception is stunning: when the mining company has taken over the land, the ravaged countryside is conveyed by whisking away a burlap backdrop to reveal a black, ominous scaffolding of coal mines up-stage center, a manmade frame to manmade problems. His lighting design also remains acute: a sorrowful slow fade "shadowing" a mother's remorse as she watches her little boy go off to the mines; hardhats peering into the danger-red darkness; the penetrating swarm of searchlights. Guthrie was a star in Part One; he stars as well in Part Two.

The standouts in the cast are, not surprisingly, returnees from Part One. Cliff Mabry is incisive as a thin-lipped Talbert mine boss, and his wily J.T. is a tour de force: a speed talker who shifts oratorical gears from slick scammer to insinuating seducer to backwoods caginess. Rod Todd again plays all the Rowen men; this time, much to his credit, he scales back his intensity to find the limited earnestness in Jed and the troubled machinations of Joshua.

Unlike in Part One, Part Two's two-score cast is uniformly competent; their commitment is one of director Jack Westin's biggest accomplishments. Injured miners straggle out of a mine blast half alive, their women shrieking. They sing union songs with a feeling Woody Guthrie would appreciate. They evoke real momentum marching in a spirited strike, their dead mentors looking on from the scaffolding in poses befitting canonization.

The two-and-a-half hour show moves at a decisive pace, which is exactly right. That's not to say there aren't disappointments. The accents don't cut it, blackface can never be tasteful and the shock the audience should receive when modernization reaches the hills is minimal. Most significantly, there's no sense that the three families are related (the genealogical chart in the program explains how, but this doesn't help the actors on-stage). Fated connections are missed. These blown linkings are particularly damning because others -- a mother calling her son's return from the Marines "the homecoming," which is the title of a Part One play; Joshua insisting upon reburying the Indian baby for intuitive reasons we implicitly understand via Part One -- are contingent upon familiarity with the first part of the play cycle and might very well be lost on those without strong memories. Instead of just letting us see the familial ghosts assemble under the tarpaulin they're soon to burst from, Westin should have been laying this American groundwork all along, just like Schenkkan has.

Still, with a community theater auditorium giving off dry ice that smells a lot like coal dust, why sniff?

The Kentucky Cycle plays through October 1 at College of the Mainland Theatre, 1200 Amburn Road, Texas City, (409) 938-1211 or (713) 280-3991.

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Peter Szatmary