Arts and Entertainment

BPA presents the Pulitzer Prize-winning show, ‘The Kentucky Cycle’

Eva Jane stars as Morning Star, and Ted Dowling as Michael Rowen, in “The Kentucky Cycle.”  - Diane Walker photo
Eva Jane stars as Morning Star, and Ted Dowling as Michael Rowen, in “The Kentucky Cycle.”
— image credit: Diane Walker photo

As big a story as the nation that inspired it, “The Kentucky Cycle” is an epic theatrical saga with universal themes and timeless ideas reminiscent of a classic Greek tragedy, but permeated with undeniably American style and substance.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama brings its stark and realistically gritty portrayal of the American Dream to Bainbridge Performing Arts this month, beginning Friday, March 14.

“’The Kentucky Cycle’ is a series of nine plays that spans over 200 years of American history in a small part of eastern Kentucky,” explained Kathleen Thorne, dramaturge for the production. “It examines the myths of the American past that have created, for better or worse, the country we are today.”

The nine individual plays, each an episodic piece unto itself but also connecting the larger narrative, works to link the vast timeline of the whole piece with the saga of the Rowens, a fictional clan that scrapes and schemes to keep its hold on land it originally acquired by cheating a native tribe out of the their hunting ground.

Thorne’s unique position offers her particular insight into the play’s historical context and cultural importance.

“As the dramaturge for ‘Kentucky Cycle,’ my job was to dig into the thematic, historical and cultural elements of the play both for the benefit of the actors and production team and for its audience,” she explained.

Cultural elements are easy to find throughout the play, some good and some regrettable.

The narrative deals primarily with the traits and desires of the main characters, which despite the historic setting are all too contemporary and familiar, with family dynamics, loyalty, greed, dishonesty, the human tendency toward violence, ambition, betrayal and the need for revenge.

The play won its playwright, Robert Schenkkan, the largest grant ever presented by the Kennedy Center for New American Plays and broke box-office records when it premiered in Seattle in 1991, said Thorne. History was made again when “The Kentucky Cycle” won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, the first time a play had won the prize without first having played on Broadway.

The narrative opens with the introduction of Michael Rowen, played with a disarming mix of malice and downhome charm by Ted Dowling, a morally ambiguous and obsessively ambitious man who sets out to reinvent himself in the harsh wilderness of budding America and assure his legacy by any means necessary.

He is an antihero along the same lines of some of today’s most popular characters, and could very much be considered a literary forefather of such complicated characters as Don Draper of “Mad Men” or Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” said show director Kate Carruthers.

Directing the immense production is most definitely a labor of love for Carruthers, who had harbored a desire to put on the play since seeing it during its original premiere.

“I was privileged enough to see it [then],” she explained.

“I have to say, I see a lot of theater, and I don’t know of any play that had a greater impact on me than that play did to this day. It was a play that I got the script for, I read and reread, I thought about it and the themes in the play and the characters. It’s just great theater.”

Carruthers said that she had always planned to organize a smaller version the production someday, never thinking that the opportunity to put on the play in its entirety would come along.

“In the back of my mind I thought, ‘Boy, it sure would be amazing to do that show,’” she said.

However, unbeknownst to either of them at the time, BPA production manager Deirdre Hadlock had also seen the play during its original run in Seattle and she had also never forgotten the story.

“Then, many moons later, we find ourselves here [at BPA] and I didn’t know that she shared the love of the same play that I did,” Carruthers recalled. “And she mentioned to me, ‘What do you think about ‘The Kentucky Cycle?’ For some reason we had never talked about it.

“’What do I think about it?’ ‘It’s the most amazing play I’ve ever seen.’

“And she said, ‘How would you like to do it?’ That’s kind of how it came to be,” Carruthers said.

The play features several adult and possibly controversial subjects, and is recommended for PG-13 audiences.

Carruthers said that none of the adult material is included gratuitously, and that great pains were taken both by the original playwright and the current cast to keep the story a realistic portrayal of rural life during several key eras of America’s cultural evolution.

The realistic violence is the work of production fight choreographer LeeAnn Hittenberger.

“The Kentucky Cycle” also features an impressive cast, with some actors playing characters who age greatly throughout the play or even descendants of themselves in later acts, including Robert Bergin, Eva Jane, Andy Buffelin, Laura Bannister, Austin Bennett, Ricky Coates, Jim Anderson, Elena Flory-Barnes, Billy Gleeson, Tim Davidson, Sam McJunkin, Lucien Carro and many others.

Though the play begins more than two centuries ago, Thorne said “The Kentucky Cycle” actually stands as part of a much older and more universal storytelling tradition.

“With another nod to history, Schenkkan uses a traditional plot structure borrowed from classical Greek tragedy,” she explained. “Each play focuses on individual characters, involving them in a series of ever-greater complications, and bringing the play to a startling climax.”

And though the story is celebrated for its dark depiction of America, it is just as well-known for its more optimistic ultimate message.

“Despite these dark elements, the play in the end is more hopeful than despairing, suggesting that damage acknowledged is damage that can be undone,” Thorne said.

Tickets for the play can be purchased in two package options: Saturday matinees of Part I and evening performances of Part II leave guests time for a dinner break and a brief walk around downtown Winslow, or tickets can be chosen for different days or separate weekends entirely for a truly flexible viewing option.

The cost is $27 for adults, $22 for seniors and $19 for students, youth, military and teachers. Tickets may be purchased by phone at 206-842-8569, online at www.bainbridgeperformingarts.org or in person at BPA (200 Madison Ave. North).

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