The Kentucky Cycle
By Robert Schenkkan. Dirs. Jason Kae and Genevieve Thompson. With ensemble cast. Infamous Commonwealth Theatre at National Pastime Theater.
Dead people didn't know how their stories would end any more than the living do. Schenkkan would've benefited from considering that simple fact before he wrote this two-play behemoth. He attempts to give no less than a 200-year history of seven generations of an American family, the Rowens, and in the process, a history of the U.S. itself. Starting with an amoral pioneer who swindles Native Americans out of their land, then following his descendants as they fight another family for that territory, the first play has one overarching idea: The sins of the father visit the son. With the arrogance of the living, we observe the dead fulfill their fates time and again. But surely they (like we) lived as if they were making free choices, even when they weren't. With predetermination, not only do you get bad history, you get leaden drama.
This problem might've been alleviated with more original dialogue. Too often the Kentuckians' sparring sounds like J.R. and Bobby Ewing having it out. The stronger second play, in which the Rowens become union organizers at the mines, seems like a rehashed consciousness-rousing "living newspaper" play from the 1930s.
A lack of ambition is not a criticism that can be leveled at this Pulitzer winner, nor at Infamous Commonwealth for bravely taking on this bear. When the mining company's rep points out that he cons the Rowens out of their land just as their forefathers swiped it from others, this one moment—more than any other—pulls it all together. As the Mother Jones figure, Jennifer Mathews gifts us an impassioned performance. And there is undeniable power in the long-awaited ending, when the latest Rowen (a compromised union man) stands among all his ghosts from the past two centuries. Alas, the effect of that final image doesn't justify the previous six hours.—Novid Parsi