Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1998
It won the Pulitzer Prize, and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, and was nominated for five Tony Awards. So how come no one came to see it on Broadway?
“The Kentucky Cycle”, a mammoth, two-part, six-hour epic, was the first play in history to win a Pulitzer without having been produced in New York. It won raves in Seattle and L.A., but when it premiered in New York in 1993, no one came, and it closed in less than a month. It was up against “Angels in America”, which won all the Tonys for epic theater that year, and if people were going to choose an epic to see, it would more likely be a contemporary one than one about the travails of the Appalachian Kentucky proletariat.
Their loss. Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle” has been called “enormously engrossing” (N.Y. Newsday), “one of the biggest, boldest and most important works the American theater has produced in recent years” (Houston Chronicle), “a gripping, garrulous metaphor for the violent history of our nation and in a larger sense, a history of mankind” (Los Angeles Times).
And now, finally, it appears in San Diego, not at one of the Big theaters, but in an unlikely, ambitious place: the Drama Department of SDSU. Associate Professor Nick Reid (best known to San Diego theatergoers for his inventive scenic design — at the Globe, the Rep, Lamb’s and others), directs.
“I looked at some smaller plays,” Reed confessed. “But I love epic theater, the stripped-down, open staging, moving through time and space. I found the script poetic and emotional. I went back and forth about whether to present one part or both, and finally decided I had to do both, to complete the story.”
The story is a sprawling 200-year history of Kentucky’s Cumberland Plateau (1775-1997), laid out in nine episodic one-act plays. Swept along through Indian wars, family feuds, land grabs and strip mining, we witness a tale of perfidy, blood, rape and desecration of the land. We are forced to see ourselves as a violent nation awash in denial and destruction.
“Each of the plays can stand on its own,” Reed explains, “but the characters continue through, with lots of twists and unexpected turns in the story. What’s interesting about the piece, is that it’s really about relationships and commitment to family, whether they’re right or wrong. There’s also a powerful revenge motif, and a very strong environmental statement, about how industrialization devastated the land, and destroyed a way of life.”
SDSU has never done anything of this scope: two repertory productions, with 19 actors portraying 72 characters. Audience members can see the parts on consecutive nights or back-to-back in an all-day marathon.
“This is the underbelly of American history,” says Reed. “But everyone who’s ever seen it has considered it one of those ‘changed-my-life’ kind of experiences.”
As Everett Evans put it in the Houston Chronicle, “This is much more than must-see theatergoing. One almost feels it should be required reading in high school and college American history courses.”
A dim, dark mirror is held up to America, and everyone should look.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.