It's good to see two major revivals of Lanford Wilson's work in New York right now (TALLEY'S FOLLY is being produced by the Roundabout at the Laura Pels). Wilson's work, usually chronicling aspects of life in the midwest, seems to be an American distillation of Chekhovian poetic realism, but there's much more going on under the surface. I don't know if they are intentional or not, but there are echoes of Wilson's work in contemporary playwrights like Annie Baker, Lisa D'Amour and Amy Herzog. There's darkness and danger just under the surface of Wilson's plays. It is appropriate that at crucial moments in Jo Bonney's revival of THE MOUND BUILDERS, eerie light seeps through the floorboards, giving the room an air of insubstantiality and danger. If only that sense of danger was present in the acting.
THE MOUND BUILDERS mixes present and past. A group of university archaeologists are excavating the remains of an ancient Native American community in southern Illinois. They have been working there every summer for years and want to continue, though a new artificial lake is beginning to flood the area. The two archaeologists, August Howe (David Conrad) and his young assistant, Dan (Zachary Booth), are devoted to this past. Both have brought along their wives. August's sister D.K. (Danielle Skraastad), a famous novelist whose writer's block has led to notorious self-destructive behavior, has come to recuperate in the midst of this small community. The wild card in this group is a local young man, Chad (Will Rogers), whose father dreams of moving out of no t so genteel poverty when the new lake is finished. Chad and his father quixotically believe they will get rich on a lakeside resort and Holiday Inn. Chad is at first the most puzzling and most dangerous figure in the play. He is carrying on an affair with August's wife Cynthia (Janie Brookshire), but constantly courting, with no success, Dan's wife Jean (Lisa Joyce -- have they had an affair during a previous summer?). He also tries to seduce Dan and would have succeeded if Dan's wife had not appeared at an inopportune moment. Sex is Chad's way of connecting with this group of intellectuals, but he also wants to connect to keep tabs on them. He does assume an intimacy with these people -- with Cynthia, his present sexual partner, with Jean and with Dan, with whom he has done some male bonding rituals -- but these people don't do intimacy, even with siblings and spouses. It is Chad's fierce sense of betrayal from this group that leads to the play's tragic ending.
As the purpose of this expedition is restoring and understanding the past, most of the action of the play takes place in flashback. In the play's present, August is dictating his memories of the previous summer to his new assistant. All he has as evidence are some random slides that show nothing of what the group discovered or what happened. All tangible evidence of the past summer has been destroyed.
The archaeologists want to understand the social structure of the mound builders, but we in the audience become archaeologists of a sort, examining the social structure of this small group, particularly the gender order. In this small community, there is a definite separation of men and women. Wives are not given crucial pieces of information about the dig and the power the archaeologists hold in the community. Husbands show little to no interest in their wives. More and more, the women become a separate tribe, sharing their psychic and emotional wounds. Dan's pregnant wife, Jean, had a nervous breakdown as an adolescent. D.K. suffered from the neglect of her father and, now, her brother. Cynthia has turned to Chad for any physical satisfaction. These are brilliant women with careers (archaeologist, doctor, writer) but it is 1974 and they are still second class citizens in this tribe; yet we are told that the tribe the archaeologists are studying is matriarchal.
There is also a symbolic overlay to the play. Water plays a crucial role -- not only the lake that is swallowing the land, but constant rain through the second act, and deaths by water. The death mask unearthed by the archaeologists seems to take on a sinister power as the play moves to its climax. THE MOUND BUILDERS is a rich, complex play about separation, loss, betrayal and death.
There's a sense of danger missing in Jo Bonney's too placid production of Wilson's play. She has gathered a good group of actors, but they seem to downplay the dark side of the play so that the climax seems to come out of nowhere. The key mistake is in the casting of Chad. Will Rogers is a very good actor, but we have to sense the sexual hunger and the danger in Chad from the very beginning. What does Cynthia see in him? What does he want? Chad is from a totally different background than the other characters on the stage, but Rogers fit into their group too comfortably -- another clean cut upper middle class guy. If I didn't know the play, I would have thought at first that he was another graduate assistant. I didn't believe he was out fixing cars when he was offstage, and I certainly didn't believe he was the sort of person to plow his way through the women (and potentially at least one of the men). We have to see in Chad what the women see -- sex and danger and, potentially, a victim. Yes, it's a kind of D.H. Lawrence cliche -- the sexual power of the working class guy -- but one has to find a way of playing it. I'm not sure Will Rogers is the person to do that. He would have been a good Dan, but Zachary Booth plays that role very well. Without the right Chad, the production loses its center, but other than Booth, everyone in the cast seemed to be on tranquilizers. There was no palpable sexual heat, fear or anger.
Other questions bothered me. What does August think of his wife's infidelity and why is he ignoring it? Here he seems simply not to notice and it is far too obvious for that. We have to see Jean's fear of descending again into madness and D.K.'s more cosmic fear. This D.K. was too laid back. All this needn't be obvious and melodramatic but, like the light shining under the floorboards, it has to be a presence that becomes more palpable as the play moves toward its conclusion. The play is partly about why August Howe is alone a year later as he tries to recount what happened, yet August is such a cipher in this production that this doesn't seem important. I saw a preview, so maybe all this will get fixed, but the issues I present here are so basic that they should have been addressed at the beginning of the rehearsal process.
It was wonderful to see this play again. Too bad the production isn't as good as the script.
THE MOUND BUILDERS by August Wilson. Directed by Jo Bonney. Signature Theatre. March 10, 2013.