WASHINGTON — IN 1981 Robert Schenkkan was an actor in Louisville, Ken., when a friend took him to visit the Cumberlands in southeastern Kentucky - a section of Appalachia where streams have carved narrow, steep-sided valleys into the mountains. There Mr. Schenkkan witnessed extreme poverty just steps away from palatial retreats; breathtaking scenery next to strip-mined land that resembled the surface of the moon. The contradictions he saw inspired him to write ``The Kentucky Cycle.''
The story tells of three fictional Kentucky families whose lives become intertwined from 1775 to 1975. The play, which started in Seattle, moved to Los Angeles, and is now playing for two months at Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, is headed for its Broadway debut in November. It is the first production to have won a Pulitzer Prize (in 1992) before a New York engagement. The play is also unusual because of its length - 6-1/2 hours. Audiences can see it over two consecutive nights or in one marathon showing with a three-hour break.
``The Kentucky Cycle'' is actually a series of nine one acts in which a team of 12 main actors and eight minor players portray 70 characters. The saga covers a number of events and issues, including the white settlers' discovery of the Cumberlands, the relocation of native Americans, the Civil War, the exploitation of the region's people and resources by the coal corporations, and the legacy of poverty. Although it is set in Kentucky, playwright Schenkkan says the story is about many places.
``It's about American themes; it's not about Kentucky themes,'' he says.
Schenkkan draws on research by the late author Harry Caudill. Schenkkan says that Caudill considered the Cumberlands ``as a warning, and that's what interests me. He described them as a social laboratory for the rest of the country.... The ideas of social movements and social problems certainly are now not limited to that part of the United States. We all face the same problems.''
After Schenkkan's visit to the region, he began immersing himself in first-person and historical accounts of the Cumberlands. Unable to find a way to write about them, he set his research aside for two years. As a wedding present for his wife, he wrote one play, and followed it with a second. Both were well-received in Los Angeles, and the Mark Taper Forum's new works festival asked Schenkkan to join a workshop. The play didn't receive its world premiere until 1991, when it was produced by the Intiman Theatre in Seattle. It was picked up again by the Taper Forum, where it broke box-office records.
``It's a huge undertaking,'' says director Warner Shook. ``Many artistic directors we went to didn't have the vision or the courage to see the potential.''
Because the play is meant to focus on the story and the actors, the set is sparse and simple. It consists of a wooden oval with a rectangular pit full of an earth-like substance. Scaffolding and a platform surround the stage. Underneath the scaffolding are benches where the actors not involved in the immediate drama sit. One of the biggest challenges ``was coming up with a physical production that would house those nine plays ... to include 200 years of history,'' Mr. Shook says.
Many of the actors have been with the production since its first performance in 1991. TV, movie, and Broadway actor Stacy Keach is performing in the Washington and New York performances.
Schenkkan says drawing audiences is a challenge because of the length and the ticket price. Orchestra seats run $100, though a variety of prices are available. Still, the play has received standing ovations. ``The passion of the piece speaks to people,'' Schenkkan says. ``It's rare that we see a family drama played out over 200 years, over so many generations. I think for audiences that's one of the things that's so provocative. It almost invariably brings one around to one's own family and considerations of the psychological and emotional legacies that have been bequeathed.''