Two small local theater companies - well, one small and one very small - have teamed up to present one of the largest, most ambitious productions of the year: "The Kentucky Cycle," a six-hour, nine-play sequence by Robert Schenkkan that won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize but has been rarely staged since, not least because it is a six-hour, nine-play sequence. Stretching over two centuries of American history. As seen through the lives of three obscure and not very likable families. In the hills of eastern Kentucky. With a giant cast.
And yet Zeitgeist Stage Company and Way Theatre Artists have taken it on, and they'll be presenting it in two parts - the first five plays in one chunk on Thursday nights and weekend afternoons, the second part, comprising four plays, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights - through Nov. 17 in the tiny Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. You can see it on separate days, or arrive at 2 p.m., take a supper break, and finish up a little before 11 that night.
By now you may be wondering: Why on earth would I do that? And there's a simple answer: "The Kentucky Cycle" is, as Zeitgeist and Way declare it to be, nothing less than an American epic.
It is huge, engrossing, and powerful in the way that only an epic can be. It is also sometimes irritating and flawed in the way that an epic can be: too extreme in its dramatic twists, too broad in its writing. But this production does a remarkable job of minimizing those weaknesses and focusing on the cycle's strengths: its intricate but clear plot lines, its vivid and concise characterizations, and its sweeping development of resonant themes.
Schenkkan has clearly cast his tale in the mold of classic Greek tragedy, following his Rowen, Talbert, and Biggs clans through generations of murder, rape, and other individual and social cruelties in a manner that will resonate with anyone who's ever entered the house of Atreus. Like the Greeks, Schenkkan traces the sins of the fathers through the fates of their sons, and like them he seeks redemption but often finds only more bloody sin. Violence and virtue crash against each other repeatedly, like echoing waves, and what may be most satisfying is the way in which the audience comes to hear and understand some echoes that remain hidden from the characters themselves.
All of this is pretty huge - and director David J. Miller wisely keeps it from growing tediously vast and generalized by grounding the themes repeatedly in the specific lives of Schenkkan's characters. From the first vicious act by the immigrant Michael Rowen, who kills a trader to take over his gunrunning business with local Cherokees, then knocks off the Cherokees with pox-infected blankets - and then rapes one of the few survivors to found his familial line - to the final, tentative reconciliation of his descendant, Joshua Rowen, with the land that has been successively stolen, farmed, sold, regained, mined, and ruined, Miller keeps us focused not just on the grand themes but on the particular acts of the violent, striving men whom mythmaking would turn into our pioneer fathers.
Among the excellent cast of 23, a few actors create particularly nuanced portraits: Michael Steven Costello's Michael is at once scruffily charming and shockingly cruel, and Peter Brown gives Joshua a painfully real blend of weary resignation and barely visible hope despite his difficult, compromised life as a deal-making miners' union official. Newcomer Mia Van de Water is also striking as Morning Star, the abducted materfamilias torn between righteous anger and bloodthirsty revenge.
But they're just a few of the many striking characters in this vast story, and what's most impressive is that we become engrossed in each of their lives in turn, yet also retain a sense of each individual's place in the larger tapestry. Miller's minimal set - a few tree trunks, chairs, tables, and steps that serve as everything from hillside to union hall to miners' tram - and the rest of the understated but effective production design, particularly the well-chosen live music that adds texture and context to each play, all work toward the same goal: to tell a huge story with enough detail to make it real.
We could wish that Schenkkan's writing more often met this standard; he's gifted at structure but too often flat or heavily "poetic" in the writing of individual lines. Miller sensibly doesn't push the thudding lyricism too hard, and he keeps the actors gliding even through a few heavily expository passages. By the end, we know that the language could have been more finely honed, but we remain grateful - and moved - to have been carried through this monumental examination of the darker corners of America's shining frontier myth.