`The Kentucky Cycle' Traces Two Centuries of a Turbulent Family

THE KENTUCKY CYCLE. Drama by Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Warner Shook. Starring Gregory Itzin and Stacy Keach. At the Royale Theatre.

NEW YORK hasn't seen a production like ``The Kentucky Cycle'' since ``Nicholas Nickleby,'' and if Robert Schenkkan's Pulitzer-Prize winning play doesn't quite equal that level of artfulness, it is still one of the most exciting theatrical events in ages.

Schenkkan's two-part epic spans 200 years and several generations of a fictional Kentucky family.

With a cast of 21 playing nearly 70 different roles and a total running time of six hours, the performance is a reminder that plays used to consist of more than just one or two characters.

``The Kentucky Cycle'' has an ambition and a scope that more than make up for its numerous flaws.

Composed of nine short individual plays, it spans the fortunes of the Rowen family, beginning with the dastardly Michael, who in the opening segment, ``Masters of the Trade,'' manages to murder a companion and wipe out an entire Indian tribe with a smallpox-infected blanket. He doesn't improve much in the second segment, kidnapping an Indian squaw for his bride and mutilating her so she cannot run away. The bride, Morning Star, gets her revenge later in the evening, and so it goes, as succeeding generations are tied together by violence, lust for land, and family betrayal.

Inevitably, the Rowens lose control of the land, as it is stripped clean by coal mining, and the last part of the work documents the struggles of the miners to unionize.

Schenkkan's writing, his Pulitzer notwithstanding, is often clunky, with broad, cliched dialogue and situations, and sketchy characterizations (necessitated, to be fair, by the play's structure). But watching this production is like sinking your teeth into one of those huge historical novels by John Jakes or James Michener - you find yourself compulsively interested.

There's a thrill in watching generations unfold onstage, with actors suddenly assuming the roles of descendants of characters they played moments before.

Director Warner Shook, who has been with the work since its inception, has staged the evening ingeniously. Working with a mostly bare set, Shook assigns cast members who are not in the scenes onstage to serve as a sort of chorus, and to remind us of the continuity of history.

The ensemble cast, many of whom are veterans of the earlier productions, do superb work. If one of them is to be singled out, it would be Gregory Itzin, who is most compelling as an underhanded agent for the coal companies in the work's best-written segment, ``Tall Tales.''

For the New York production, the cast has been augmented by a genuine star, Stacy Keach, playing several of the most important roles. He fits right in with the ensemble, and yet enriches the production with his powerful presence.

``The Kentucky Cycle'' requires a large allotment of time and money (a ticket must be purchased for both parts), but it is well worth the investment.

Theatrical events of this magnitude are, sorry to say, all too rare.

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