Director John Sowle’s set design at Stageworks/Hudson makes it easy to see why The Mound Builders was the late Lanford Wilson’s favorite play. While the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly or Hot L Baltimore or Burn This might be produced more often, this 1975 Obie Award-winning play is smartly structured, complex, and intriguingly subtle. Centered on the doings at an archeological dig in Blue Shoals, Ill., The Mound Builders is brilliantly served by Sowle’s erosion cloth panels for the summer rental home and the rear screen projections of the Native American burial mounds. The set material is the ideal symbol for a play about digging ever deeper into the dirt, and the secrets the past reluctantly yields.
The open, irregular weave of the beige erosion cloth languidly framed for the walls creates both warmth when lit from the front of the house, and ominous shadows when lighted from above. The Mound Builders shifts similarly back and forth from February 1975 in chief archeologist August Howe’s (Steven Patterson) Urbana, Ill., study, crammed into a sliver of downstage right, to the events of the previous summer at Howe’s rented house adjacent to the dig site. The upstage projections, unique in the region’s theaters, are always smartly used at Stageworks/Hudson; here, there is the eerie picture of two skeletons buried in the white earth, one skull turned in profile to the other skeleton, whose skull is also turned away as if in rejection.
This startling image begins and ends Kaliyuna Arts’ production, bookending more prosaic projections that Howe periodically narrates. These brief scenes in his study create tension with the longer scenes centered on the archeological study into the surprising life of the pre-Columbian Mississippians.
In and out of the house go Howe and his onstage dig team: wife Cynthia (Molly Parker-Myers), assistant Dan (Dan Fenaughty) and his newlywed wife Jean (Lauren Murphy), and Chad Jasker (Jack Kesy), oily hanger-on and the son of the farm owner where the house and dig are located. With each return to the study, Howe adds a little more to his tape-recorded account of the events of the previous summer, slipping in ominous little side notes—“the disaster of last summer,” “my ex-wife”—to the mostly innocuous photos of the house, the lake, the people, and the mound. These hindsight comments parallel the summer-house scenes as Howe and Dan dig deeper into the mound; the mound slowly yields up its story just as the characters reveal their secrets and regrets.
When Howe’s desiccated, dissipated novelist sister D.K. (Louise Pillai) literally is carried in a blanket, mummy-like, into the summer house, both mound and characters soon give up the mother lode, and the reverberations intimate tragedy both in the distant past and the ambiguous present, in Wilson’s rich and insightful writing.
Phil Elman’s sound design aids Sowle’s staging perfectly, giving the scenes in the summer house the echoes of drums, chanting, and thunder; car tires on gravel; cries that fade with an indie horror film piano accompaniment; and the study scenes the hiss of tape recording and the click of the slide projector, like bullets rotating in the chamber. It’s a smart touch in well-staged production of a play full of depth and multiplicity.