A group of archaeologists and others attached to them are holed up in and around what’s referred to as a modest, rustic cabin — but the set presents us with a vast lodge — engaged in excavating a series of mounds in Illinois left by pre-Columbian tribes. Early in the play our sympathies fall with them, as high minded scholars seeking to advance knowledge about an early civilization, led by the august Professor, August Howe. But the play is clever in that the self-interested local, a macho brute of a guy, Chad Jasker, who wants to make his fortune developing the land, gains on our sympathies, or at least our understanding, at the same time that we are learning more and more about how crude and self centered he is.
That’s the lineup: and the issues of The Mound Builders, first presented at Circle Repertory Theater in 1975, remain timely; conflicts between those who move in the sophisticated, international world of scholarship and locals, archaeologists and land developers; by an easy extension those who want to dig things up in order to know more and those, like Native Americans protecting ancient burials for any number of reasons. And all this comes with the inevitable meditation on the blind destructiveness of time, and how all our mounds eventually crumble.
We know what Chad Junker wants and we sense what lengths he’ll go to get it.
In contrast to our clarity about Chad, a problem with the play, told in flashbacks, is that the archaeological activities of this group aren’t vivid or convincing. The play never leaves the house, an odd choice for a story about field work. Sometimes somebody goes out the door to unseen the site. Mention is made of students living in tents. But this doesn’t convey the intensity and focus of a dig, or the dawn to dusk activity of working archaeologists. A scene where some artifacts of this ancient people make it to the house and are — not counted or catalogued but — more or less tossed around is something of a travesty.
Also vitiating the conflict between archaeological and local interests is the presence in the house of several non-archaeologist family members. The most vividly written character is the cynical, seen-it-all, ailing Delia K. Erickson, who has all the best lines but has nothing to do with the plot. Her three initials presumably refer to the decay of … western civilization … all civilizations … more on that time-mneditation stuff.
The upshot is that the play is somewhat engaging for a time but the implausibility and slack tone of the archaeological segment — from the characters and their motivations to the vagueness of the dig — intrude more and more so that one’s interest, like the great civilizations, unwinds.
The Mound Builders plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center through April 14th, 2013.