Coal Miner's Fodder
When last we left The Kentucky Cycle, the ill-fated Rowen and Talbert clans were embroiled in the same sort of inbred conflict that nearly tore apart the nation during the Civil War. As Robert Schenkkan's nine-play epic continues in Part Two, the descendents of both families wage a different kind of war, this time in the cutthroat arena of commerce. Determined to claim supremacy over the life-giving landscape, the patrician Talberts, who own the local coal mine and company store, drive their working-class rivals, the Rowens, into the equivalent of indentured servitude. Like their neighbors, the Rowens are required to buy their outrageously priced provisions with Talbert-issued scrip -- which, naturally, is the only form of money that the residents of Kentucky's Cumberland Plateau can earn for their labors.
The four dramas that comprise Part Two are more dramatically uneven and narrower in scope than the cutting, expansive quintet that makes up Part One, but the Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre's version of the concluding half remains compelling to the bittersweet end. Despite some melodramatic contrivances and a couple of spotty performances, director Jeremy Cole and the actors breathe soulful life into the generations-wide tale of dreams both defiant and deferred. Most important, Cole keeps the proceedings moving at a brisk pace, pausing for dramatic effect only when the story builds in a manner that justifies a break in the action.
The saga resumes with Tall Tales, a drama set in 1890 that points out the contrasts between Appalachia's agrarian past and its industrial future. The play also epitomizes the differences between rural and urban lifestyles, as evidenced in the relationship that develops between Mary Anne Rowen, a young farm girl, and J.T. Wells, a drifter bent on bilking the Rowens of their land's mining rights. As the silver-tongued confidence man, Darrin Ray sputters and blusters where he should cajole and coax, but he ultimately proves engaging, especially during his final scene with Stacey Nelms's affecting Mary Anne. Rounding out the cohesive ensemble are Ken Witt, Linda Button, Catherine DiBella and Daniel Langhoff, who all lend distinctive touches to their respective portrayals.
Following the gap-bridging prelude (and an intermission), we're introduced to the evening's most riveting chapter, well acted by a large cast. Set in 1920, Fire in the Hole chronicles the divisions between the region's mine owners and workers, a struggle that brings to mind the labor unrest examined in John Sayles's film, Matewan, also set in the 1920s (albeit a coal vein or two away in West Virginia). Trapped in a way of life that, like mining itself, promises little more than slow suffocation, the Rowens scrape out a meager existence while searching for a way -- any way -- to regain their long-lost dignity and pride. Following several interrelated incidents of violence (and a couple of entertaining appearances by the character of real-life labor activist Mother Jones), Mary Anne Rowen, now the clan's matriarch, stands up for the family name by leading an impromptu march through the town's muddy streets. The rousing drama ends with a beautifully backlit tableaux that, while not exactly worthy of Delacroix, strongly reinforces the fist-pumping workers' cries of "Union!"
After a second intermission, the story fast-forwards to 1954 with Which Side Are You On? Joshua Rowen, who began working in the mines at an absurdly young age when his father bribed a minister to forge his birth certificate, has risen through the ranks to become the head of the local United Mine Workers union. Unfortunately, Joshua suffers from the same curse that has visited itself upon his family for generations: Although fiercely determined to make things better for his neighbors and associates, he's not always as compassionate toward those closest to him, including his hard-drinking wife and idealistic -- and, like most Rowens, subsequently disillusioned and rebellious -- son. Christopher Leo, Michelle Hanks and Daniel Langhoff form a volatile family unit, ably supported by the splendid ensemble.
Finally, there's The War on Poverty, an epilogue-like drama set in 1975 that recounts Joshua's return to the family homestead. As his relatives foretold in Part One, the land has been stripped of its beauty and sapped of its bounty, useful now, one suspects, only as a vast landfill or vacation-home site. But as a curiously interrelated trio of men ruminates about their collective decision to sell the parcel, old ghosts reappear, ancient woes resurface and the centuries-old feud threatens to start all over again. As subtly rendered by performers Christopher Leo, Dane Torbenson and Raymond Pearl, the brief play hauntingly brings the entire drama full circle.
Strange as it may sound, the six-hour-plus production (Part Two runs a little more than three hours) is a good advertisement for anyone considering whether to purchase a ticket for Tantalus, the Denver Center/Royal Shakespeare Company's upcoming ten-play, ten-hour account of various Greek myths. (Coincidentally, actress/dramatic marathoner Jeanne Paulsen, a member of the Tantalus cast, won a Tony nomination some years back for her work in the Broadway production of The Kentucky Cycle.) Mostly, though, the effort amounts to a monumental achievement for Hunger Artists -- and, by extension, all those hardy souls, both professional and amateur, who believe that the imagined interactions of gods and humans can be just as illuminating, if not more so, than slickly varnished truth.
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