He is the James Michener of theater. The William Faulkner of the Great White Way. The John Steinbeck of the stage. Robert Schenkkan's excursion into the breathtaking history of Appalachian settlers, moonshiners, sod-busters, and miners -- The Kentucky Cycle -- is an epic that draws on the literary legacy of all three writers, on the mountain folklore of eastern Kentucky, the mythology of Greek tragedy and the biblical legends at the foundation of western civilization. It's also one of the best theatrical productions to hit Front Range stages this year.
The Kentucky Cycle is a collection of nine one-act plays following four intertwined families from 1775 to 1975. The play opens around a misty Kentucky campfire as two frontiersman confront each other in the forest. Before the opening scene closes, we are treated to the murderous fury that drives the play, the backstabbing disposal of a friend to save one's own life, a standoff with the Cherokee, a deadly attempt to swindle away the land, and the first in an ongoing family tradition of pillaging the corpses as they fall in Michael Rowen's wake.
Michael is the first in a line of Rowens, setting precedent by purchasing his land with disease, stealing his Cherokee wife, killing the baby daughter she bears him, and raising the son in his own despicable likeness. Morning Star, his wife, represents the second of the families. The third is the Biggs family, descendents of the slave Michael brings back to Kentucky to work his fields and to bear him new legions of slaves. The fourth family is the Talbert family, who are irrevocably enmeshed in the saga when Michael's son, Patrick, falls in love with Rebecca Talbert and employs his father's notorious methods of courtship.
The nine-play cycle is divided into two parts, each a full three-hour evening of theater. That deceptive length will likely scare away audiences from a must-see piece of theater, but those who attend can attest that the six hours fly by quicker than most productions of one-third the length. Like one of James Michener's 1200-page tomes, this theatrical event is riveting entertainment, putting all the conventions of the stage to their greatest use and transporting audiences into a captivating whirlwind of character, conflict, and Kentucky soil.
Director Jeremy Cole has made a remarkable success out of this endeavor, shaping an enormous cast of 29 into one cohesive ensemble. Cole has long flirted with taking his place alongside the best directors on the Front Range, and this accomplishment seals his membership in the top tier. The production benefits from virtuoso performances from the likes of Christopher Leo, Lori Hansen, Skip Maher, Linda Button, Augustus Truhn, Catherine DiBella, and Michelle Hanks, but it is the work of the company as a whole that is most remarkable. Cole has clearly elevated his cast, and the result is uplifting to audiences, even when the subject matter might dictate otherwise.
Shenkkan references everyone from Agamemnon to Nick Adams, but there's no escaping the debt he owes Faulkner, echoing the ceaseless use of the degenerating relationship with the natural world as a mirror to reflect and clarify the corruption and betrayal at the core of the characters. The use of a watch as the play's central symbol -- a family heirloom and the spoils of pillage -- underscores the play's absolute truth that each idealistic young Rowen will yield to time, attempting to create themselves anew out of their own platonic conception of themselves but ultimately taking their place in the traditional rite of passage of selling out land, family and soul.