… You remember what we done here and what it cost, and you tell the people, Joshua! You tell ’em the story and don’t you leave nothing out! You make ’em remember!
(Relenting) Sssshhhh, baby. I know, I know. But there ain’t no need to feel lonely, Joshua, not ever again! Just look around you, Joshua, look at your family! Ain’t union grand! —“Fire in the Hole,” The Kentucky Cycle
The Kentucky Cycle is a two-part, nine-play chronicle of 200 years of American history told through the experiences of three connected families in a remote area of eastern Kentucky. It is an illustration of the triumphs and tragedies of Irish immigrants, Native Americans, African slaves and a chronicle of their grueling farming and factory work. At six hours and 20 minutes, the Hilberry Theatre’s exquisite production is also an admonition of the reallocation and grisly environmental defilement of the land we call America. But more importantly, it’s an in-depth scrutiny of the human condition.
Beautifully written by playwright Robert Schenkkan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning/Tony Award-nominated opus gives an honest telling of the pathologies of racism and misogyny and the karma that ensue.
If there’s one thing Schenkkan obviously understands, it is how to develop a character. From beginning to end, The Kentucky Cycle asks “How far will people go to survive?” No character in Schenkkan’s work is innocent of the sins of primordial Darwinism.
It’s rare that six hours of anything can keep audiences’ attention these days. With the exceptions of such sprawling epics as Nicholas Nickleby and Tony Kushner’s highly-regarded Angels in America, it is unusual for a writer to make such good use of our time. Largely due to meaty narratives and thoughtful plotlines, and scenes of sex, betrayal and war expertly presented by the Hilberry cast, The Kentucky Cycle moves at a remarkably swift pace.
The opening act, “Masters of the Trade,” begins in 1775 in the wilds of Cherokee territory. The patriarch, Michael Rowen, is an Irish immigrant who has made his way to the green hills of Kentucky to make his fortune, but has been forever damaged by the cruelty of an oppressive England. Rowen is what can only be described as a sociopath; murder, rape and cruelty come easily for him. When his character says, “I killed my first man when I was seven years old,” the audience knows his story will not be simple.
By the second act, the audience finds itself hooked. In “The Courtship of Morning Star,” a sexual assault ensues. The violent dance of attack-and-repel is bravely executed by actors Josh Eikenberry and Jennifer Tuttle, who plays a kidnapped Cherokee woman named Morning Star. The graphically illustrated scene depicts the act that sparks the tragic cycle of Rowen progeny. Though short, the power of the scene is amplified by unsettling (though subtle) nudity, and leaves the audience shamed and saddened.
As The Kentucky Cycle progresses, the foundation of the tale, a misbegotten family tree, branches off into a triptych of generations: the Rowen clan; Rowen in-laws and longtime nemeses the Talberts; and the Biggses, an African-American family that battles slavery, war, racism and poverty.
Part I of The Kentucky Cycle concludes with the bloody and intense climax, “God’s Great Supper,” offering perspective by the play’s first real-life history makers. The infamous Confederate captain and real-life Civil War soldier, William Quantrill, provides allusions to Homer-esque themes of betrayal and greed. The Hilberry’s pure drama of well-choreographed fight scenes and unanswered questions guarantee the audience has a vested interest in seeing Part II.
Part II begins with a lull, if only for a moment. A third generation of Rowens live a simple farmer’s existence on the family homestead. Following a slick acquisition of the land’s “mineral rights,” whatever surface beauty the property once held is systematically pillaged for profit and mined for coal.
In “Fire in the Hole,” set in 1920, degradation and oppression take on a more modern face. Now, the unsafe coal mines that proliferate offer a new form of abuse and disregard for life. In this segment, Schenkkan makes brilliant use of a character likely based on union matriarch Mother Jones (at Hilberry, actress Christi Marsico is a doppelgänger for the original union hell-raiser), providing audiences with the first glimmer of hope for the downtrodden ensemble.
But by the time “Which Side Are You On?” begins, the union and its leaders have adopted their own demons. As in real life, no character or situation in The Kentucky Cycle can be pigeonholed as “all good” or “all bad.”
Schenkkan does a terrific job of forgoing the obvious, trusting audiences to make their own decisions about the righteousness or culpability of his characters. The final act, “The War on Poverty,” is The Kentucky Cycle’s final breath as seen through the eyes of the remaining family members. Through the fog of the characters’ many weaknesses, Schenkkan manages to infuse a feeling of hope into his epic tale.
With their collective 19 years of experience with Detroit’s Attic Theatre, directors Lavinia Hart and Pat Ansuini have done a beautiful job with The Kentucky Cycle. Their believable and creative translations of war, violence and, ultimately, repentance are commendable.
While most performances in the play are excellent, special mention should be given to Eikenberry for his breadth of range and convincing array of dialects as he plays several pivotal roles. Also praiseworthy is Tuttle, for her tear-jerking expressions of desperation and triumph. Playing two very different main characters, Tuttle’s performance is indeed superior. Actor Chris Broady plays the simple-but-complicated hillbilly equivalent of Julius Caesar’s Brutus, giving near-impossible humanity to his extremely flawed character.
The Hilberry Theatre took on an awesome task. The Kentucky Cycle is complex theater, both for actors and audiences, but also in terms of production. And it succeeded. If you were unsure about spending more than six hours of your time in the confines of a theater seat, don’t be. It’s worth every minute.
See The Kentucky Cycle at the Hilberry Theatre (4743 Cass, Detroit). This play runs Wednesday-Saturday until May 15. Call 313-577-2972 for ticket information; tickets are $20 per part or $30 for both.Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].