I’ll admit it right off; other than Fifth of July, I am not that familiar with Lanford Wilson’s work. That’s right – shame on me. A couple of weeks ago I went to see The Mound Builders at The Pershing Square Signature Center. As a dramatic literature scholar, I have come to find the Signature invaluable to my research. But the company is also a terrific resource for those who have a deep love for the American stage. Signature explores the richness of the canon beyond the tired trinity of Miller, Williams, and O’Neill. (Nothing wrong with any of these writers, but too often productions of their plays have become, in the words of Brooks, deadly).
And in that regard, The Mound Builders is a very important play. In terms of style, it has a loose disjointed feel — particularly in the first act — that was endemic of its era (mid-1970’s). 21st century attention spans might find the pacing a bit off-putting, which is shame because there is a great deal lurking beneath the bellbottoms and headbands.
Wilson’s piece follows a group of archaeologists who travel to the southern tip of Illinois every summer to investigate the mounds left by pre-Columbian peoples. This particular summer, they are racing time as the local lake has been damned up and the water is rising, threatening to engulf the site of the dig. An important find sets off the tragic events at the end of the play. The characters consist mostly of the researchers and members of their immediate families. The only exception is Chad Jasker (a wonderfully conflicted Will Rogers), whose family owns the land the scientists use as a staging ground. Familial dysfunction informs most of the relations. Couples are married just because.
The Mound Builders though is a searing indictment of a cultural imperialism (though within the confines of these shores) in a number of different forms. We realize how fleeting our time on this continent has been, and yet how much destruction we have wrought. Further, the archaeologists are so concerned with their find that the needs of the people living in the community barely register. They condescend and manipulate Jasker (a touch of the red state/blue state divide that would come later). They change state laws without consulting anyone. They will take their discoveries far away from the community for their own purposes.
The character who is on point in this deception is Dr. Dan Loggins. Zachary Booth’s take on the character is particularly riveting. His Dan is a nice, happy-go-lucky, come-what-may kind of guy – on the surface. Booth’s Dan very much reminds me of Pyle from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American; the awe-shucks attitude masks a resourceful cunning. Like Pyle, Dan is trying to get what he wants out of the local population and is quite relentless in his approach. He will provoke Jasker’s sexual confusion, look the other way when the latter is trying to seduce his wife, and push him in the direction he needs him. Nice does not mean kind, and Dan is a very rare sort of villain – one who believes that he is doing nothing but good and yet causes nothing but harm.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful turn of Danielle Skraastad as D.K. I had seen this marvelous actress in Tony Kushner’s iHomo. She had a small part in that earlier play but was mesmerizing as a pregnant theology doctoral student. Here, as D.K., she embodies the ennui and disillusionment of the time. She falls somewhere between Dorothy Parker and Mrs. Robinson.
I have seen three plays in as many months at The Signature — August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad, and finally The Mound Builders – and it has quickly become one of my primary go-to theaters. Their mission and dedication to playwright makes this company essential, and their moderate pricing makes their productions affordable. Check them out.