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THEATER REVIEWS : 'Kentucky Cycle' Bares Dark Side of American Dream : The seven-hour epic follows the turbulent experiences of a West Appalachian clan.

March 16, 1995|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a chapter we might understandably prefer to overlook, but the tragic history of the remote, impoverished West Appalachian Cumberlands region casts an important cautionary spotlight on the darker corners of the American dream.

It also makes for riveting theater.

Serving both purposes handsomely, "The Kentucky Cycle," Robert Schenkkan's expansive, seven-hour epic, receives an extraordinarily accomplished two-part staging at Santa Barbara's Garvin Theatre.

Using nine engaging, individual stories to bring flesh and blood to socioeconomic abstraction, Schenkkan traces the region's last 200 years through the saga of the Rowens, a fictional clan that scrapes and schemes to keep its hold on land it originally acquired by duping Cherokee Indians out of their hunting ground.

"Blood is just the coin of the realm," succinctly observes Michael, the Rowen founding patriarch (John Hazen Perry) on the cycle of murder and vengeance he sets in motion.

Following the inexorable tradition of Greek tragedy--and the "Oresteia" of Aeschylus in particular (like Agamemnon, Michael is murdered in his bath after sacrificing his own daughter)--successive generations of Rowens act out their lusts and ambitions, while their illusions are shattered in the process.

Buffeted by increasingly invasive historical events--the War of Independence, the Civil War, the expansion of coal-based industrialization, and the rise of organized labor, the Rowens represent Americans in microcosm as they find themselves increasingly marginalized--first from their land, then from one another, and finally from themselves.

In a haunting full-circle coda, Perry plays Michael's 1975 descendant contemplating his own hypocrisy as he surveys a strip-mined landscape rendered as cold and barren as the moon.

From a cast numbering nearly 30, director Pope Freeman coaxes notably fine performances from his principal actors (Perry, Sacha Denison, Tony Miratti, Ellen Margolis, Judi Dickerson, Nicholas Leland and Mark Anthony Lee) in their multiple roles through the decades. Supporting performances maintain a fairly uniform level of quality as well, and production values are Broadway-caliber.

Part One of "The Kentucky Cycle" is as involving as theater can get. Ironically, while Part Two is more important and more relevant, it's less visceral in its issue-oriented focus on the exploited Cumberland coal miners. Schenkkan the social crusader isn't as strikingly original as Schenkkan the storyteller, but he sustains enough dramatic momentum to more than repay the considerable investment of time.

Few venues on the Central Coast have the resources to do justice to this monumental work--if you missed the 1992 production at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, you couldn't ask for a better second chance.

"The Kentucky Cycle," Garvin Theatre, 800 Cliff Drive, Santa Barbara. In repertory: Part One, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. and alternating Thursdays/Fridays at 8 p.m.; Part Two, Saturdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. and alternating Thursdays/Fridays at 8 p.m. Ends April 1. $15 each part; $24 for both. (805) 965-5935.

*

Willy Russell's "Shirley Valentine" is as far from "The Kentucky Cycle" as the theatrical spectrum allows. An intimate portrait of a middle-aged Liverpool housewife who makes a surprisingly bold life decision, its poignantly comic personal narrative steers resolutely clear of broad sociological themes.

Yet there's a universal appeal in Shirley's chatty, hilariously precise observations on her life of routine drudgery and her slow-building recognition that "there was so much more inside me that I could have lived a bigger life."

All that changes when she takes a friend up on an opportunity to visit Greece.

Armed with a thoroughly convincing accent and irresistible bubbly charm, Karyl Lynn Burns' masterful performance captures the shifting emotional currents in Shirley's monologues with impeccable clarity.

Director Greg Lee keeps the monologues flowing with the cadences of natural conversation. If you can get past the inherently static, artificial quality of all single-actor plays, Burns' rousing performance proves a rallying call to live out our unused possibilities while there's still time.

"Shirley Valentine," Paseo Nuevo Center Stage Theater, Santa Barbara. Fridays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 4 and 7 p.m. Ends April 1. $18.50. (805) 963-0408.

*

Straddling the fence between individual and sociopolitical perspectives, David Mamet's "Oleanna" at the Ensemble Theatre tackles the knotty issue of sexual harassment from a decidedly non-politically correct point of view.

This two-character drama pits a pompous, tenure-grubbing professor (James O'Neil) against a manipulative, militant student (Dena Anderson) who uses legal technicalities to twist an ambiguous interaction into a career-wrecking accusation.

Both have agendas, and neither can lay much claim to any moral high ground.

But the historical tide is definitely on the side of the student, as the bewildered professor finds the burden of proof lies with the accused in this nightmarish vision of feminism run amok.

Director Eric S. Mills has some difficulty steering his performers through the jagged rhythms of Mametspeak, an unstable mix of English and testosterone, characterized by trailing sentences and cross-purpose exchanges.

The problem is particularly pronounced in the more abstract first half, where the characters' intentions remain opaque. Once they ooze to the surface in naked confrontation, the production hits its stride.

"Oleanna," Alhecama Theater, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends March 26. $15-$20. (805) 962-8606.

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