Necessary Animals?

Somewhere in the Cumberland Gap region of eastern Kentucky lies a piece of land. On that land, sons kill fathers and betray mothers; fathers banish sons; grown men snap young boys' necks; brothers sell brothers into slavery; women plot against abusive husbands; corporations swindle illiterate farmers; and families are massacred, robbed and cheated by economic forces they can barely comprehend.

This spot of ground is the setting for Robert Schenkkan's 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle, a nine-play epic that takes more than six hours to watch and guides the viewer through some of the most horrible atrocities imaginable. Fullerton College is producing the show, marking one of the most ambitious theatrical undertakings in recent memory on any local stage, big or small.

Using a cast of mostly young, mostly green college actors, director Robert Jensen and co-director Dan Lemieux stage a solid, frequently mesmerizing production that never blinks at the material's sprawling length or brutality. Anyone who likes sweeping historical narrative or big, bold, epic theater won't be disappointed.

That's not to imply it's a perfect run from start to finish. Some of the actors are in over their heads. The visual sense of the land, which plays such an enormous role in Schenkkan's script, isn't as strong in this set design as it should be. And there's a handlebar mustache on one unfortunate actor's upper lip that should never have been taken out of the prop cabinet.

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But those are minor flaws. What this production does best is meet the standard its playwright set for any production: "The most important thing here, always, is the actor standing in his light, speaking his words."

If the story is told well, it's difficult not to be caught up in this brutal narrative, which is Hatfields vs. McCoys meets Kent Family Chronicles meets sprawling James Michener novel meets Leftist revision of American rural history—all that and some pretty good theater, too.

The cycle tells the story of three interrelated families over 200 years. It begins in 1775 with the first play, Masters of the Trade.Michael Rowen, a barely civilized, nakedly ambitious Irish immigrant, marches through the Cumberland Gap and finds a small clearing in a thick forest by a pristine creek—so clear you can see a shilling resting on the bottom—overlooking a broad expanse of ridges and mountains. The ground is so fertile a man can eat the dirt with a spoon; all you have to do is piss and something grows. Unfortunately, that land is also a battleground between warring Cherokee and Shawnee tribes and white men quite willing to sell them the guns they need to keep the flames of war fanned.

For the next two centuries, the Rowen clan fights with their hated rivals, the Talberts—and with external forces—for the right to stay on that land. In the first half, the perpetrators are the families themselves, locked in a vicious struggle for dominance. In the second half, outside interests wear the black hat: Standard Oil and coal-mining companies. By the time the cycle ends, 200 years after Michael Rowen first staked his claim, the region is afflicted with abject poverty, the family now as degraded as the land itself.

It's that shift from a family affair to the bigger canvas of 20th-century politics that makes the second half (which covers 1890 to 1975) a less engaging ride. The bigger canvas provides plenty of time for pro-union, anti-big-business sloganeering, but it tends to overshadow the intenser human story—which these actors are much better at capturing.

What this mostly young cast lacks in craft, it makes up for in commitment, enthusiasm and—critically important in a play like this—diversity. All of the main actors are asked to play characters that range widely in age, occupation, background, dialogue and intelligence. The directors don't rely on a great deal of makeup or costuming. They have instructed their actors to act.

And act they do. There's not a weak link among the main characters. Kevin Brown is memorable playing a range of characters, especially his Jed Rowen, a crafty Confederate soldier who somehow maintains a real sense of dignity amid the horrible massacres in which he participates. Brianne Gates is also eminently believable as the unionizing mother in Fire in the Hole,set in 1920. Also memorable is Addison Glines, who bookends the cycle by playing sons who, though separated by nearly 200 years, fight bitterly with their fathers, a recurring oedipal motif in The Kentucky Cycle.

One motif that isn't as relevant as it ought to be in this production is the land itself. Jensen's staging is often superb—the versatile set doubles as family homestead, Civil War battlefield, village massacre, coal mine, union hall, birth chamber and burial ground. And some of the images are extraordinary, including a fire-and-brimstone preacher quoting from Revelation as women and children are slaughtered. But the physical embodiment of the land, upon which all this happens, isn't captured visually.

Much of that has to do with logistics: the show is produced in a small black-box theater, which compromises the play's size. But without a sense of the land's transformation, it's harder to connect with the hold the land has on these characters.

The last play of the cycle, The War on Poverty, finds Joshua Rowen (a very effective Dan Lemieux) stumbling upon his family's original homestead. Shilling Creek is now full of silt and garbage. Once-lush fields are scrubbed bare by timbering and mining, and the land is mostly broom sedge and hard rock. It's bruised and battered, but it still remembers—as does Joshua Rowen, who doesn't know quite why he's here but encounters the ghosts of all those who have fought and died on this spot of ground.

It's that sense of the land remembering that gives this play such a powerful ending punch. A wolf howl begins this cycle of plays, and a wolf sighting ends it—even though, as one character says, no wolf has been sighted in the Cumberlands for 50 years. But, evidently, the wolves are returning, as the people slowly leave the land they've ruined. And in a play in which revenge plays such a critical part, perhaps that's who will exact the final revenge: the land itself. The trees will return to cover all traces of civilization, the ground will swallow all memories of mankind's rude intrusion, and the wolf will run freely over the bones of the animals who, out of their own myopic sense of necessity, turned a natural paradise into a poisoned, ravaged pit. Check back in 200 years.

The Kentucky Cycle at Fullerton College's Bronwyn Dodson Theatre, 321 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton, (714) 992-7298. Part 1: Thurs., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; Part 2: Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. $10.50 for each part; $13 for both.

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