“A person isn’t happy unless they’re building something,” says Dr. Dan Loggins, junior archaeologist, trying to explain why the people of a lost ancient Native American civilization built mounds of earth in Illinois.
“There’d be people perfectly willing to tear something down,” says Cynthia, the wife of his colleague, chief archaeologist Dr. August Howe.
The late Lanford Wilson seemed to be exploring the two conflicting impulses — searching for the meaning of civilization — in “The Mound Builders,” his dark, cerebral 1975 play that the Signature Theater is reviving. It is less accessible than Wilson’s later and most popular play, “Talley’s Folly,” which the Roundabout is currently reviving a few blocks away.
In “The Mound Builders,” the two archaeologists and their wives are spending their fourth summer on the site of an archaeological dig in Southern Illinois, along with August’s daughter and his sister, a once famous, now broken novelist who is convalescing from a riding accident. The seventh character, Chad, is the son of the owner of the house where they are all staying and of the land they are excavating. There is a sense of urgency this particular summer: The land will soon be flooded to create an artificial lake.
While the characters try to piece together the civilization that once existed around them, they also slowly reveal the civilization — or lack of civilization — to which they belong. August Howe (David Conrad) presents a series of slides intended to be a professional account of the archaeological dig but wind up being as much a personal reminiscence of the events of the summer. (The bulk of the scenes in “The Mound Builders” are therefore flashbacks.) August refers during the slide show to his wife Cynthia (Janie Brookshire) as his ex-wife, and that break-up is one of the mildest of ways that things fell apart. “The Mound Builders” is replete with small and large betrayals, losses and outright tragedy.
Nearly every character has had a break-down, some of them long in the past: Dan’s wife Jean, a physician (Lisa Joyce) tells how she was the national spelling bee championship at age 12, which led to her institutionalization: She couldn’t stop spelling out in her head every word anybody said to her.
Wilson spells out very little in “The Mound Builders.” Under the surface is a rich deposit of metaphors and meanings to unearth. The surface though is strewn with random facts and alternately intellectual and banal conversations and seemingly disconnected stories. What must hold them together is the atmosphere of tension and mystery. Lighting designer Rui Rita and sound designer Darron L. West help to set the tone, as does the stand-out performance by Danielle Skraastad as the hard-bitten, cynical, secretly vulnerable sister.
But the central figure here should be Chad, a sexual adventurer who is jealous, resentful, angry at feeling inferior to the over-educated scientists who surround him, and, according to the script, capable of anything. As played by Will Rogers, though, he seems to fit in way too well, lacking both the requisite sense of menace and the redneck magnetism that the script implies. Ironically or not, it’s (the frequently shirtless) Zachary Booth who gives the most magnetic performance as Dan — although the other characters talk of him as mild-mannered. Without this credible sense of menace, “The Mound Builders” turns into an interesting if diffuse intellectual debate over lost civilization instead of a physically felt exploration of the thin membrane that separates civilization from savagery.
The Mound Builders
At The Pershing Square Signature Center
by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Jo Bonney. Scenic design by Neil Patel, costume design by Theresa Squire, lighting design by Rui Rita, sound design by Darron West, projection design by Shawn Sagady.
Dr. Dan Loggins: Zachary Booth
Cynthia Howe: Janie Brookshire
Professor August Howe: David Conrad
Dr. Jean Loggins: Lisa Joyce
Kirsten: Rachel Resheff
Chad Jasker: Will Rogers
D.K. (Delia) Eriksen: Danielle Skraastad