The cast of Highlands High School’s production of The Kentucky Cycle sitting around a campsite enjoying each other’s company.
Review by Catherine Foster, Mercy McAuley High School Critic Team
A journey through time full of family conflict, destruction of the land, and a struggle to see hope through the coal dust clouding the air: Highlands High School’s production of The Kentucky Cycle was poignant and captivating.
The Kentucky Cycle is a series of nine one-act plays spanning around 200 years of Kentucky history written by Robert Schenkkan. As performing the whole cycle would have taken over six hours, Highlands performed only the final four one-acts. The first of these features young Mary Anne Rowen and her family’s decision to sell their land rights to the silver-tongued representative of a coal company. The second centers around an adult Mary Anne as she struggles to care for her sickly son in the terrible conditions of the coal camp where her husband works in the dangerous mines, and she ends up leading the workers to fight for a union. The third one-act is about Mary Anne’s grown son Joshua and his son Scotty fighting over how the union should be run, and Scotty is killed because of Joshua’s decisions to prioritize a better contract over safety. The final one-act focusses on Joshua trying to decide if he will sell the final tract of family land.
Highlands’ production perfectly captured the somber tone of the show. The cast showed an exceptional grasp of the heavy themes and expressed them through acting choices that were thoughtfully selected and meticulously executed. The technical elements brought the world of Appalachian Kentucky to life within the theater in a way that was realistic and engaging.
Samantha Heilman’s performance as Mary Anne Rowan Jackson was heartbreakingly moving. Through passionate facial expressions and inflections, she became the essence of a mournful mother. She delivered several powerful monologues, expertly placing different levels of vocal emphasis as well as pauses filled with palpable emotion throughout the speeches. Jameson Zoller believably captured the nature of Joshua Rowen through mannerisms and physicality that expressed the character’s stress and inner conflicts.
Peyton Pope played Margaret Rowen, wife of Joshua, with fiery intensity. Her stumbling, unstable physicality was suitable to her alcoholic character. One of the most memorable moments of the play was her breakdown when she found out her son was likely dead. Her visceral screams and ragged breathing made the situation feel incredibly realistic. Nellie Albritton portrayed young Mary Anne Rowan with a bright smile and endearing girlish energy, contrasting the older version of the character in a way that provided deeper understanding of her tragic journey.
Sound effects selected and created by Violet Hisey, Mason Haffey, Max Hamilton, and crew brought the setting of the story into vivid reality. From the clink of miners’ pickaxes to the howl of the night wind and the chirp of crickets, this crew provided all the ambient noises that one would expect to hear in Appalachian Kentucky. Student assistant director Eva Sarakatsannis created a video to summarize the first five one-acts that were not performed, which was played at the beginning of the show. This video was cleverly created from stock footage to match the mood and aesthetic of the show, and it effectively conveyed important contextual information.
All in all, Highlands’ production of The Kentucky Cycle was emotional and riveting. Cast and crew encapsulated the feeling of the show through passionate performances and scrupulously designed technical elements. This production told a meaningful story of the past that can serve as a warning as we head into the future.
In Highlands High School’s production of The Kentucky Cycle, Mary Anne Rowen (played by Samantha Heilman) rallies the ensemble to stand up for their rights and fight.
Review by Eddie Pierson, La Salle High School Critic Team
As the audience took their seats in Highlands High School’s auditorium, getting ready to enjoy the school’s production of The Kentucky Cycle, they were completely unaware they would be introduced to a world of miners, mothers, and a multitude of Kentucky accents; but they would undoubtedly depart from the auditorium glad they had been.
From the writing of Robert Schenkkan, The Kentucky Cycle originally premiered in June of 1991 by director Warner Shook. The collection of nine one-act plays went on to receive the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, deeming it the first recipient of the award not formerly shown in New York. The play details the melodramatic mythology of the American West, following mainly the Rowen family and their struggles with land, relationships, and their history spanning over the two-hundred year period of 1775-1975.
Given the daunting task of taking on a sequence of nine one-acts that typically runs six hours long, Highlands High School was able to create a concise version of the production that remained effective in conveying Schenkkan’s themes. Beginning the performance, Highlands projected a five minute video created by student director Eva Sarakatsannis explaining the story’s beginnings. From there the cast took to the stage and performed the last four of the original script’s one-acts, still allowing for a performance that heightened the emotions and pulled on the heart strings.
One individual that played a prominent role in both the story being told and the production’s excellence as a whole was Samantha Heilman in her portrayal of Mary Anne Rowen Jackson. Heilman’s repertoire of skills shone through in Mary Anne’s emotions as a wife, mother, and most importantly as a human. In capturing Mary Anne’s humanity, Heilman allowed audiences to be fully immersed in the story of the Rowens. Another performer that effectively presented the Rowens’ lore to the audience through his strong characterization was Jameson Zoller as Joshua Rowen. Zoller’s passionate presence as Joshua brought an intense energy to the stage in the many a high-stake moment.
A truly breathtaking performance of the production was given by Peyton Pope as the drunken Margaret Rowen. In a moment of utter exasperation and exhaustion in Margaret’s journey, Pope beautifully showcased the breakdown of a woman downtrodden and oppressed by life through her means of clear unfiltered talent. In his role as James Talbert Winston, Bradley Groneck also exhibited masterful emotional skill through his use of anger in communicating his character. Near the end of the show in an intense argument between James and Joshua, Groneck’s ability to perform with such emotion gave the scene and many others a complex sense of realism.
In collaboration with the performers, the world of the Rowens was also brought to life through the many technical aspects of the show. Costume design, led by Megan Reichert, successfully played a major role in assisting the audience when differentiating between the time periods the plot passes through. Sound was also of the utmost importance in bringing the audience into the production. Violet Hisey’s sound design and the work of the sound crew utilized folk instrumentals and soft bird chirps to transport the audience to Eastern Kentucky along with the characters.
Ultimately, Highlands High School’s production of The Kentucky Cycle introduced its audience to a myriad of charming characters with macabre stories, but allowed them to leave with the important themes of family and emotion its story propelled.
In Highlands High School’s production of The Kentucky Cycle, J.T. Wells (played by Kyle Schnelle) spins a story to the other characters on stage to trick them out of land.
Review by Madison Jacob, William Henry Harrison High School Critic Team
A window into time as the world progresses, the beautiful connection between lifetimes, the patterns seen through generations, the circles they make, the cycle. This is what was brought to life at Highlands High School with their production of The Kentucky Cycle.
The Kentucky Cycle is a series of nine one-act plays written by Robert Schenkkan that follows the Rowen family through the course of several generations. In order to perform the entirety of The Kentucky Cycle, it would take a total of six hours. Therefore, Highlands High School was forced to shorten the play to only its second part.
Highlands did a wonderful job encompassing the essence of this play. From the costumes to the props, to the accents, and the acting, all of it reflected the large variety of years the plot took place in. In every crescendo of emotion, every violent moment, the suffering of the Rowen family was beautifully executed throughout the show.
The version of The Kentucky Cycle that Highlands High School performed started with an engaging performance of J.T. Wells. Kyle Schnelle brought this charismatic storyteller to life with his unmatched physical comedy. From there, Samatha Heilman performed her first of many moving monologues as Mary Anne Rowen Jackson. Her emotion was perfectly executed, performed with her expressions, voice-cracks and tone. Plenty of other notable performances were seen in the first two one-acts including AJ Street as Mother Jones, and Treiston Collins as union starter Abe Steinman.
Joshua Rowen is a complex character to play. He was the last living Rowen, a broken man with a broken marriage who lost his child, yet he was a revolutionary who gave hope to people with his words. Jameson Zoller was the embodiment of this multifaceted character, his speeches beautiful and flowing. Peyton Pope gave a heart-wrenching performance as Margaret Rowen, the loss she conveyed heavied the hearts of countless people in the audience. In addition to those two, Ben Pfetzer and Darian Robinson both gave amazing performances as Scotty Rowen and Frankie Biggs respectively.
The Highland High School’s Crew also helped put on a spectacular performance with The Kentucky Cycle. It is no easy feat to bring together costumes for different time periods, but costume designer Megan Reichert accomplished just that. Combine that with the amazing props from props designers, Addie Littner and Hannah Nieporte who brought furniture that changed based on the time period. It was thanks to this talented crew that The Kentucky Cycle was able to be the window in time that the show was.
Highland’s High School truly put together a remarkable show with The Kentucky Cycle. In every aspect from the acting to the tech, The Kentucky Cycle was a beautiful show worth remembering.
Abe Steinman (played by Treiston Collins) is caught by Andrew Talbert Winston (played by Jake Hagerty) and others in Highlands High School’s production of The Kentucky Cycle.
Excerpts From Other Top Reviews
"The entire cast dealt with the difficulty and sensitivity of the material with such poise and decorum and Samantha Heilman as Mary Anne Rowen Jackson led the way. She was able to convey her emotional journey through her facial expressions, body movement and gestures as well as the intonation of her voice. Following her lead, Jameson Zoller as Joshua Rowen was able to exhibit a significant character arc which was subtle throughout his storyline but developed clarity as his story unfolded."
-Max Doyle, Roger Bacon High School Critic Team
"Peyton Pope, playing Margaret Rowen, showed her incredible acting prowess. She did a fantastic job showcasing the pure emotion and concentrated anger of feminine rage after her son’s death, which came about from her husband’s misguided compromises. "
-Maria Buerger, Roger Bacon High School Critic Team
"Costumes, designed by Megan Reichert, were not only crafted specifically for each time period but also to connect all of them. Each core family was tied to a color throughout generations, with rival families mirroring each other and demonstrating their similarity in core values yet difference in motivation. The costumes harmonized with the lighting (designed by Penelope Kolb), and together they created an incredible presentation of the changing times."
-Nyla Shahanavaz, Walnut Hills High School Critic Team
"Along with the cast, the crew did an excellent job of making this show really seem like it was actually the 1800s or early 1900s. The set was built beautifully, and the scene changes were very efficient, making the play run smoothly and quickly. Along with the set, the lighting was excellent, with good use of spotlights on the main actors whenever they had a monologue, and lighting up the stage with lights that matched the style of the show itself. Overall, the backstage crew noticeably worked hard to make sure this show was the best that it could be, and it turned out wonderfully."
-Tabitha Johnson, Loveland High School Critic Team
"Some of the supporting actors in The Kentucky Cycle also helped the play be a compelling tale. AJ Street, as Mother Jones, put the work into her character. Mother Jones, who is based on a real person, had an amazing presence every time they were on stage. Frankie, who was played by Darian Robinson, led each scene every time they were on stage. They played the role of Frankie, an outgoing woman who believes in earning success, with noticeable gratitude and realism."
-Cadence Lynn, Colerain High School Critic Team
"Jameson Zoller skillfully brought to life the role of Joshua Rowen as he expertly portrayed Joshua’s thoughts and emotions as he slowly became more lost and alone throughout the course of the production. From his outstanding stage presence to his gut-wrenching monologues, Zoller continued to showcase Joshua’s deep struggle as he balances political movements with his own deep- seeded feelings."
-Ashlyn Fuhrmann, William Harrison High School Critic Team
"The Kentucky Cycle is an intense, heavy storyline that is typically difficult to replicate, but Highland’s rendition was moving and emotional, allowing the audience to feel each theme of family, power, betrayal, and revenge."
-Jenna Ryan, Roger Bacon High School Critic Team