Photo by Craig Schwartz
Photo by Craig Schwartz

"The Kentucky Cycle," by Robert Schenkkan, is a chaotic six hour play illustrating 200 years of Kentucky history. It was performed in the McClintock Theatre from March 2-7, 2017 and took place over the course of two nights. Through the USC School of Dramatic Arts, Stephanie Shroyer directs this play with her own interpretation of the hardships that the forefathers of America endured. From conflicts with the Native Americans in 1775 to internal struggles of greed and stupidity in 1975, "The Kentucky Cycle" evoked thoughts on the difficulties of the lives of citizens just a couple of generations ago.

Throughout the play, each generation of the protagonist's family endures some sort of pain and struggle. The protagonist, either Michael Rowen (Wells Rhodes Hacker) in the start of the play or one of his descendants in the following parts, were all male and were therefore seen as the heads of their families. That was no surprise, but it was unexpected that there was a common theme of men being unethical and flawed. The author's view on the role of men in history can be unfair at times. The male protagonists often are depicted as harsh on their families and as willing to do anything to succeed. While that may be true, this seems to be a common thread among all generations of Rowens, and this made it seem like men were the reason why families fell on hard times.

This is especially true in the first scene in 1775 where Michael Rowen shows selfish and primal qualities. He encroaches on the grounds of the Native Americans and eventually stabs a friend to gain the trust of the Native Americans. Wells Rhodes Hacker plays this part masterfully by being cold toward the friend he murdered; his depiction is frightening, and I could see his desperation to survive. He succeeds and, despite warnings, takes cursed land from the Native Americans, dooming his family for the next 200 years. Throughout the rest of the play, the family is cursed and faces terrible misfortunes. He endures the blame through the play because he went too far in trying to get ahead in the colonial world. While his greed and betrayal of his friend ultimately doomed his family, you can respect what he did. He needed to survive and did everything he could, and that's not necessarily something he for which he should be blamed.

Meanwhile, women are often depicted in a graceful light as the caring one in the household across centuries. It makes men seem like the reason for all of the troubles and conflicts. It feels like a skewed illustration– while that may have often been the case, it would have been more fair if some men were shown to be moral and family-oriented. In the case of the Fire in the Hole scene, set in 1920, Mary Anne Rowen Jackson (Haley Spence Brown) appears to be the rational one in the family, doing all she can to help her son Joshua (Isabelle Yamin) recover from his sickness. Meanwhile, the father Tommy Jackson (Troy Guthrie) is depicted as authoritative and irrational. He forces his underage son to work in the mines with him in order to help support the family. He may not have been thinking straight, but he too was just trying to do whatever he could to support his family. To us, it may have seemed cruel and unfair, but Tommy only wanted to raise the social standing of his family.

There is no problem with portraying men and women in very different ways, but it lessens the realism of the play. The male protagonists had tough love for their children and came off as brutal and selfish, while women would come off as angelic and unable to make their own choices due to the patriarchy. In the case of Rebecca Talbert, played by Ali Gallo, she showed her devotion to the man she loved, Patrick Rowan (Brandon Warfield), by defending him against her own father. Soon after, Rowan kills her father and marries her. Women are kind hearted and caring in the play, but at the same time they are powerless. While Schenkkan may have generalized this to emphasize the dominance of males that pervades society (particularly in the past), the realism took a hit due to so many different characters that shared similar qualities. The intent was to tell audiences about the struggles of a family for 200 years of Kentucky history, and this is lessened by skewed portrayals of both genders. Having a male protagonist who was caring for his family and was not constantly brutal or a woman who broke out of the maternal mode would have added more complexity.

Shroyer's interpretation of the play is informative and passionate. Each actor is able to bring out the darkness of those times, and her vision brings out the desperation that each generation has to survive. Overall, Schenkkan's play displays the challenges that the founders of America faced and shows that some of our problems today pale in comparison to those of past generations.

"The Kentucky Cycle" ran at USC's McClintock Theatre March 2-7th.

Contact contributor Joshua Hung at joshualh@usc.edu.