Hunger for land dominates history, right up to the present day. And that drive to stake territory is the force behind the long, violent Kentucky Cycle.
Robert Schenkkan's Pulitzer Prize–winning saga tells two centuries of a sadly American story, with nine one-act plays unfolding across two productions that total nearly seven hours. It doesn't feel quite that long sitting through both parts (performed in repertory) at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. The production, directed by Karen Paisley, is admirable in its scope (30 actors) and methodical in its pacing, giving weight to Schenkkan's words and their cadence. Across both halves, the ensemble is strong, and several leading actors stand out, including Scott Cordes, Matt Leonard, Chris Roady, Manon Halliburton, Michael McIntire, Jordan Fox, Bob Paisley and Jessica Franz.
Still, it takes commitment.
The minimalist staging suggests an Andrew Wyeth painting, and many scenes are composed like artwork. The opening is a choreographed tableau, as though the actors inhabit a glass-enclosed museum exhibit. Then the story unspools into knots of murder, deception, greed, corruption and revenge — all of it tangled around a plot of land sought by one sociopath in 1775, and then by his dysfunctional progeny.
In Part I, Michael Rowen (Leonard), desperate for a piece of land, cheats and kills Earl Todd (Roady), a trapper, and then does the same to the American Indians with whom Todd traded. Next, he kidnaps and rapes a native woman, Morning Star (Halliburton), enslaving her as his wife. And Rowen's crimes are just beginning.
Starting with this ugliness, the Cycle's first five one-acts are a virtual assault on the senses. And that unease deepens as the family's brutal history repeats itself.
We see the actors in Part I reappear in many roles through the decades. Leonard returns as Michael Rowen's son, Patrick, battling his father, now portrayed by Cordes. (Cordes covers five Rowen incarnations, Leonard three, among other small roles.)
The Rowens aren't the only family in the forest. A neighboring homestead is owned by the Talberts, and a family descended from slaves becomes part of the generational drama. (The program includes a family tree, which proves useful.) These Hatfields and McCoys don't allow ambitions to fade or old resentments to lie.
The stage is built inches from the first row of seats, and the cast members travel the aisles in a proximity that wrests your attention. As Part I keeps stacking its brutalities, you long for some disengagement, a little refuge. But vivid images impress and remain in mind: a lone trapper by a campfire, a tribe of Cherokee, Morning Star giving birth alone, a courtship on a hillside, a Civil War drowning.
It is 1885 by the time Part II begins. The Rowen family is courted by smooth-talking J.T. Wells (McIntire), a rep for a mining company salivating over the land's mineral rights. In flirting with the Rowens' young daughter, Mary Anne (Hannah Freeman), he displays whatever side of his salesman self a situation demands.
In the four one-acts comprising Part II, we move into the early 20th century and a more contemporary morality tale: poor versus rich, have-nots versus haves. In this case, that means owners and miners in 1920s Kentucky. The Rowens have lost their coveted land to the mining company and become dependent on the dangerous work it brings.
As in John Sayles' 1987 film, Matewan, the harsh treatment of coal workers and the violence surrounding union organizing are depicted in stark terms. Here, Paisley takes a dominant role as the adult Mary Anne, struggling to get by with her family in a workers' camp. The length of this drawn-out segment, however, lessens the impact of its final moments.
Against a landscape turned to waste by strip mining, the decades 1954–1975 complete The Kentucky Cycle, and a relatively swift denouement closes the story's circle. Onstage as in history, greed is a powerful motivator. But this Kentucky isn't just a microcosm of America's murderous Manifest Destiny. It's also a mirror held up to a compromised culture, one whose people, these characters, might ultimately find redemption.