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“The Mound Builders” by Lanford Wilson

at Signature Theatre Company

Review by Sydney Arndt

Signature Theatre excavates Lanford Wilson’s Obie Award-winning “The Mound Builders,” first presented in 1975. In the small-town of Blue Shoals, Illinois, a group of archaeologists work tirelessly to unearth the ancient ruins of a Native American tribe buried underneath the heaping mounds that sweep the landscape. Just when they are about to grasp their dreams of archaeological fame, ulterior motives collide. Can the team salvage the remains? 

The play bounces from the present, the winter of 1975, to flashbacks of the previous summer, the time of the dig. The head archaeologist, Professor August Howe (David Conrad), is the narrator of the past, re-counting the events of the summer through a projected presentation of snapshots, which are brought to life as the bulk of the plot. August and his wife, Cynthia (Janie Brookshire), are soon met by long-time friends and colleagues, Drs. Dan and Jean Loggins (Zachary Booth and Lisa Joyce). The four of them alone would be a team of power couples, exuding ambition and intellect, but they are quickly imposed by two unexpected house guests. The first is a local friend, Chad Jasker (Will Rogers), who proves to be sexually attracted to or involved with nearly everyone in the house. The second is August’s estranged sister, Delia Eriksen (Danielle Skraastad), the wounded drug addict novelist who is too poetic for an intelligible conversation, once she finally speaks.

While the stoic Delia is planted on the couch center stage for most of the play, she doesn’t have any bearing on the climax or dramatic action. Chad on the other hand, is a perilous driving force, destroying the marriage of August and Cynthia, as he attempts to woo the smart and newly pregnant Jean. We then come to find out that Chad’s family owns the surrounding land and have made plans to build an Interstate directly through the mounds, potentially washing away the ruins with the neighboring lake. Tensions crash as August and Dan fight for the integrity of their project and face the threat of losing their life’s work.

Wilson’s characters are known to be written with great depth and complexity as individuals and in their relationships. With that said, the heart of this production is without a doubt in Lisa Joyce’s portrayal of Jean. Joyce stole the spotlight whenever she was on stage; she showed commitment and presence in every moment, and was the only one who consistently played the subtext. The other actors may have lived fully in their characters, but only scratched the surface with relationship building between each other.

“The Mound Builders” continues through April 14th at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 212-244-7529,