Reviewed by Judy Richter
Richard Elliott, artistic director of Willows Theatre Company, is one brave man. His company is staging and he is directing Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle." Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for drama, this epic play covers so much territory that its nine acts have to be presented in two parts to be seen on consecutive nights or, in the case of this review, in an afternoon and evening. Spanning two centuries of American history, it also requires 22 actors who create nearly 100 characters.
The play is set in Eastern Kentucky starting in 1775 when an Irish immigrant, Michael Rowen (Tim Hendrixson, whose accent can be hard to understand), kills a man who has been selling guns to the Cherokee Indians in exchange for pelts. Rowen in turn cuts his own deal with the Indians, seizes their land and builds a cabin to which he later brings an unwilling Cherokee woman, Morning Star (Letitia Trattner), to be his wife. The saga continues, intertwining the lives of Michael's descendants with the Talbert and Biggs families. The neighboring Talberts are often at odds with the Rowens. The Biggs family starts with a Rowen family slave, Sallie (Gloria Belle), whose son, Jessie (Adrian N. Roberts) was sired by Michael Rowen. Moreover, Michael's son, Patrick (Brady Woolery as the young Patrick, Andrew Merit as the adult), married Rebecca Talbert (Tenaya Hurst) and had two sons of his own, mingling the Talbert and Rowen lines. A genealogy in the program helps to sort everyone out, but the narrative is so clear that there's no confusion. Although most members of the Rowen and Talbert families have a redeeming quality or two, few of them come across as wholly admirable. Murder and cheating are constant themes, as are illness and natural death. Nor is life kind to most of the characters, especially the Rowens. It's as if the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children and the children after them.
The play continues through the Civil War and into the late 19th century, when a glib story-teller, J.T. Wells (Ryan Tasker), convinces the illiterate Jed Rowen (Cassidy Brown) to sign over the mineral rights to his more than 300 acres of land to the Blue Star Mining Co., a Rockefeller venture. Jed naively believes he has gotten the best of the deal, but what he did was give Blue Star the right to mine millions of dollars worth of coal on his land. By 1920, the mine is going full bore, employing most local people but paying little heed to safety measures and devastating the environment. This section, "Fire in the Hole," is one of the longest in the entire play as the miners, led by the grieving Mary Anne Rowen Jackson (Diana Boos) and union organizer Abe Steinman (Michael Moerman), take the first steps toward forming a union and joining up with the United Mine Workers of America. The union's battles with the company and the ultimate closure of the mine are the focus of the final two parts, taking place in 1954 and 1975.
Even though only three actors -- Brown, Hendrixson and Roberts -- are members of Actors Equity, the acting is first-rate. Nearly everyone creates several characters, but they're all clearly differentiated. The designs in the company's intimate theater also work well with sets by Peter Crompton, lighting by Robert Anderson, costumes by Melissa Torchia and sound by Sean McStravick, although the mine whistle heard between scenes of "Fire in the Hole" is intrusive. The convincing fight choreography is by Tom Flynn.
Because this monumental play is so demanding of resources and time, few companies dare to take it on. Therefore, the Bay Area owes a big thank you to Elliott and his company for accepting the challenge and meeting it so well.