Running Time: Part One -- 3 hrs, 30 min; Part Two -- 3 hrs, 20 min
Often an idea is so tremendous that no matter how it manifests itself on stage, we are bound to appreciate it, to laud it, despite its obvious shortcomings. It is a Great Idea, and audiences react to it enthusiastically, able to see where the idea could have taken them as if they'd actually made that trip. But we don't get there.
So it is with Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle, an epic theatrical work -- winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 -- which takes the audience on a phenomenal American journey from the eve of the Revolutionary War to the economic downtimes of the 1970s. The two-part opus is composed of nine short plays marking major turning points in the multigenerational tale of three families tied by experience to a parcel of land in southeastern Kentucky.
The inexorable decay of this land at the hands of those who most want to possess it lends a tragic aspect to Schenkkan's story, its Great Idea. Certainly there is tragedy in the futile attempts of the various players to try to control their destinies in a world where lying, cheating, and murder inevitably result in near-divine retribution. Instead of attaining immortality through ownership of the land, the characters find only more death while exhibiting a willful ignorance to learn from the mistakes of the past.
At its best, The Kentucky Cycle is a glorious over-reach, a Great Idea approaching Greek tragedy in its scope and in the depth of its exploration of human interactions that, while firmly fixed on the mundane, reverberate through generations of characters doomed to suffer the consequences of their ancestors' choices. At its worst, Schenkkan's script reads like a made-for-TV movie, awash in bathos and sentimentality. So what to make of this Mary Moody Northen Theatre production?
First of all, in even choosing to stage this work, Artistic Director Melba Martinez and her St. Edward's staff should be congratulated. Year after year, Martinez has sought to imbue her student and faculty artists with something much greater than the feeling that they are putting on a good play. They exude a passion and belief for the life of the onstage work in all its aspects. The sense of community among the participants of a St. Edward's production is palpable. So it is not at all surprising to see the young actors, and their Equity counterparts, putting their all into every moment of effort.
Sadly -- and this is a recurrent shortcoming of large, epic works -- the staging of a Great Idea often proves more rewarding for the group putting on the work than the audience viewing it. So it is with this seven hours of theatre. The same best/worst scenarios of Schenkkan's script are too evident in the production, which offers nuggets of brilliance bogged down by technical inadequacies and unfulfilled promise. Martinez has allowed the plays in production to jump the conceptual tracks. Where once there was a specific idea, now there is chaos and inconsistency. Martinez lets her cast wallow in the emotional drudgery of Schenkkan's writing, turning potentially sharp, political dialogue into maudlin speechifying, complete with syrupy underscore.
The artists throw themselves headlong into the play's emotional churn. The actors have clearly worked hard to internalize the hopes and miseries of their characters, but too often climaxes are marked by screaming and wailing, imprecise movement and awkward physicalizations. The potential for fine, pointed theatricality decays into chaos. There are a few exceptions, and Ev Lunning Jr., in the final two plays of the nine-play cycle, at last proves it is possible to balance the insane emotional weight of the material with acting that is focused, nuanced, and deep. As the district's union leader, struggling with the demons of fame, infidelity, and power, Lunning offers a man at once larger than life while being crushed by life's vicious turnabout. Other actors show flashes of similar balance: Stephen Balgooyen's Irish conniver in the opening play, Masters of the Trade; Jeffery Mills' smooth operator in Part Two's Tall Tales; Gabriel McIver's rebel soldier in God's Great Supper; Bhagarit Crow's union agitator and Brent Werzner's conflicted miner in Fire in the Hole. Andrea Skola provides a contrasting study of the wives of powerful men in Tall Tales and Which Side Are You On? Aaron Alexander, playing a multitude of black characters from slave to gunrunner to miner to union leader, projects quiet intensity and a strong presence throughout.
Ultimately, the dissonance between esoteric tragic action, the search for unnecessary verisimilitude, and the leadenness of the staging prove the play's and this production's undoing. The supreme effort of the company to get this massive work on stage is laudable; but the Great Idea is lost in the mundane, and we are left applauding the effort rather than the art.
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