She may be sitting in the dark, but she is a beacon of light in this show. That would be Danielle Skraastad, who plays Delia, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict forced to recuperate in the summer home of her estranged brother. Perched on a couch, decked out in mismatched pajamas, her complexion sallow and her eyes haunted, she tosses acerbic comments left and right and is seemingly the only person really aware of what is happening around her. And there is quite a bit.
It is clear from the first moment that The Mound Builders is a dark play. Dim lighting and the sound of rain introduce us to the character of Augustus Howe (David Conrad), a college professor narrating notes to his secretary about a dig from the previous summer which, it appears, led to the end of his marriage and damaged his career as well. The play is performed through flashbacks, depicting the previous summer when Augustus, his wife Cynthia (Janie Brookshire) and daughter, Kirsten (Rachel Resheff), move into a house in Blue Shoals, Illinois, to work on an archaeological dig. They share the house with his chief research assistant Dan Loggins (Zachary Booth), and his pregnant wife, Jean (Lisa Joyce), a gynecologist who has taken time off to have a baby. Hovering among the edges of the group is Chad Jasker (Will Rogers), whose father owns the land where the dig is taking place and who dreams of a profitable future when the land is paved for an interstate highway.
The mixture of personal and professional is a complicated one, as numerous relationships are more twisted than they appear. Cynthia is having an affair with Chad, who apparently longs for Jean and whose friendship with Dan possesses homoerotic undertones. These relationships are all presented, but none of them are explained or given any context or even background. Jean states her commitment to Dan and asks Chad to stop coming by the house but he persists, even offering her some of the land he is set to inherit. She continues to rebuff him, but the history between the two is never explained or even hinted at. And while the audience (and Dan and Delia) witness Cynthia leaving the house in the middle of the night, the problems in her and Augustus’ marriage are never depicted. The motivation behind potentially disastrous choices is not provided through the written dialogue or through the performances of the cast.
There is no lack of dialogue in The Mound Builders, but it persists on a heavily academic level rather than an emotional one, and I wearied of the academic name-dropping very quickly. I understand this is an academic community – everyone except Delia is a professor or student, and Delia herself is a novelist – but witty exchanges such as, “You only live once,” with a response of, “I’m not sure that’s been proven,” cannot make up an entire play when there is no emotional core to support them. I found the scattered references to the supernatural, hinting at ghosts stirred up by the dig, to be much more intriguing.
Directed by Jo Bonney, The Mound Builders is an ensemble-driven play and this ensemble is capable, but too restrained. As Augustus, Conrad does little but watch the proceedings around him, and Brookshire is much too buttoned-up as Cynthia. She makes passing references to professional sacrifices for the sake of her family, but aside from her continuous drinking of wine, her emotions are masked. Resheff is given little to do other than cheerfully run up and down the stairs of Neil Patel’s set. Booth gives Dan an earnest cheerfulness and dedication to his work, and Joyce infuses Jean with an endearing gravitas and sincerity. Rogers, who I enjoyed very much in last season’s The Submission, is miscast as Chad. His awkward goofiness, which has been endearing in other roles, is a detriment to the character, who should exude charisma and sex appeal. Instead, Rogers delivers many of his lines in a garbled delivery that is difficult to understand.
Skraastad’s performance is the highlight of the evening. Watching (and often commenting) on everyone else, she infuses a unique blend of anger, hurt and loneliness into each line, giving her underwritten character more context than Wilson’s script is capable of. Divorced and apparently rootless, Delia is free of attachment and Skraastad depicts how that status is both a blessing and a curse.
The Mound Builders was written in 1975 and its age is evident, both through the costumes and the gender roles that are evident onstage. Conflict between men and women is hinted at in the dialogue, such as when Cynthia asks Jean how she will continue to work when she has a baby and when Cynthia fervently tells Jean to not help in typing her husband’s notes. More insight into Cynthia’s background, and the sacrifices she made for her family, would have given these scenes much more impact.
The lack of emotional investment dulls the urgency and impact of the second act conflict, but the irony of the show is still evident: these people are so fixated on understanding the destruction of previous communities that they are oblivious to the destruction of their own.