Appalachia Stint Fuels Pulitzer-Winning Play
Playwright was struck by region's chronic poverty and natural beauty
NEW YORK — SEVERAL years ago, playwright-actor Robert Schenkkan was stuck trying to figure out what to get his wife for a wedding present.
Finally, he sat down and wrote a one-act play inspired by and dedicated to her. Little did he know that it would eventually turn into the best present he could give himself.
That one-act was the first in what would eventually become a series of nine short plays, performed in two parts in a production that would become known as ``The Kentucky Cycle.''
It premiered in 1991 at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, received rave reviews, was produced at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and won the Pulitzer Prize.
Now, two years after its premiere, it has arrived on Broadway, with Stacy Keach added to the acting ensemble.
The day after the play opened in New York, Schenkkan spoke about the play's genesis and its long road to Broadway.
``The actual point of departure was a trip I made into eastern Kentucky in 1984,'' he recalls. ``I was down there working at the Humana Festival, and I met a physician who was running a medical practice there. He had some pretty colorful experiences.''
Schenkkan joined the doctor on a weekend tour of his patients in the economically depressed Appalachian country. He was struck by the disparity between the chronic poverty of many in the region and the substantial wealth of others living nearby. He was also dazzled by ``some of the most extraordinary scenery I've ever seen in this country.''
He began to read and research extensively on the area, drawing to a large extent on the writings of the Kentucky historian Henry Claudill, particularly his book ``Night Comes to the Cumberlands.''
The first play he wrote, ``Tall Tales,'' eventually became the sixth in the cycle.
``I had created this fictional family,'' he says, ``and I thought it would be interesting to follow them through 200 years of history, from the introduction of white settlers into the region, to somewhere in the present. The more I worked on it, the more obvious it became to me that the land was yet another character, a central character.''
Before he knew it, the project had grown into nine one-acts.
``It did occur to me that I was writing something unusual. I just decided that these plays were going to be whatever they were going to be. I don't mean to suggest that I wasn't very conscious of structure and effect, or of planning a theatrical experience, but they had an energy of their own, one that demanded a certain kind of form.''
The various plays were performed separately at numerous venues, including the Mark Taper Forum, the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., and Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Utah.
But no one was willing to risk giving the entire series a full production, until Elizabeth Huddle, the artistic director of the Intiman, read the plays and decided that her theater would give them the production she felt they deserved. The production received $125,000 from the Fund for New American Plays, the largest grant in the fund's history.
Directed by Warner Shook, the play was rapturously received by critics and audiences in Seattle. Eight months later, it was produced at the Mark Taper Forum, where it set box-office records and was called one of the year's ten best by Time Magazine.
Then, it won a Pulitzer Prize, becoming the first play in history to win the award even though there had been no New York production. (``Angels in America,'' which arrived in New York last season, is the second play to achieve this.)
Ironically, while all this was happening, the play was turned down for a grant several times by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Shrugging his shoulders, Schenkkan says, ``I really couldn't tell you why. Neither could they. They all seem rather embarrassed about it.''
Naturally, there were producers interested in mounting the play in New York. But a six-hour play, employing 21 actors, is a ``producerial challenge, to put it mildly,'' according to the playwright. ``The preferred play du jour these days seems to be two people onstage at two lecterns, reading letters to one another.
``All the producers were like a bunch of kids standing around a pool waiting for someone else to jump in first. They looked at it, sort of gulped, and said `I don't know.' But David was the most convincing.''
He was speaking of David Richenthal, who had previously produced only one play - and that was Off-Broadway.
Of Richenthal, Schenkkan says, ``Whatever one could say about his relative naivete as a Broadway producer, a naivete that has been well-educated by this point, the man had a passionate commitment to the play, and that was the most important thing. Not that he doesn't care about the bottom line.... But he thought it was important that the play be saved.
``And we were coming in on our own terms. We didn't toss the company out and replace them with stars. We didn't add revolving platforms or spectacle. It stayed within our aesthetic, with the emphasis on the actors standing in the light telling a story. I'm very proud that we stuck to our guns.''
When one of the lead actors dropped out to make a televison pilot, an opportunity arose to recast. ``We came up with Stacy Keach, who's been an extraordinary addition. And obviously he has commercial cachet. This is one of the great American actors. We said he didn't have to play the smaller parts, but he said, `No, I want to do everything.' He even learned how to play the mandolin. I couldn't ask more in terms of his commitment to the idea of ensemble.''
Despite the accolades, Schenkkan knew there was a risk coming to Broadway. ``I certainly didn't come here thinking it was a slam dunk.''
Even after winning the Pulitzer, he rewrote several sections of the play. Although ``Kentucky'' arrived with a $800,000 advance (``Angels'' only had $500,000, he notes), the oversized production is a financial risk, made even more so by the mixed reviews it received from the New York critics.
In addition, the play demands a large investment of time and money (the top ticket price for both sections is $100). .
``Given the current Broadway prices, we're actually very reasonable,'' Schenkkan comments. ``$100 was the top price charged by `Nicholas Nickleby,' and that was 10 years ago. And one can see the entire play for as little as $20. It's very important to me that it not be an elitist event.''
Schenkkan says that the show is definitely going to have a run, despite some of the reviews. ``I didn't expect to get a rave from [The New York Times]'' he says, ``but I didn't expect to get attacked, either. The audience response has been wildly enthusiastic. That's the crazy-making part of this business. The reviews don't reflect that. This play has had such a journey to get here. The challenges that it has faced and surmounted have been so huge, this is just part and parcel. When you write a six-hour play, you have a certain amount of endurance, and you tend to take the long view of things. I'm not discouraged at all.''
He says quietly, but intensely, ``This play holds an audience, a New York audience, in rapt attention for six hours, and it brings them to their feet at the end. That's pretty amazing. I can live with that.''