EDITOR’S NOTE: Five of the seven roles in the current Ward Theatre Companyproduction of The Mound Builders have been double-cast. We, of course, are only able to review the work of the actors who participated on opening night on Saturday, Jan. 6th.
Archeologists make it their mission to delve into past civilizations, continuing to dig and to dissect as they strive to increase our understanding of the human condition by piecing together knowledge of the past. An individual site at which they do their work is referred to as “a dig.” Lanford Wilson’s The Mound Builders serves up a slice of the lives of a team of archeologists during their fourth (and final year) working on one such dig. The specific time is June of 1971.
Indeed, the play can be viewed as a “dig” of the world of their “dig.” And just like the archeologists themselves, we find ourselves unearthing random bits of information that will help to construct a view of their micro-culture from which we might glean views of our own macro-culture.
Under Wendy Ward’s direction, Ward Theatre Company’s production presents this experience up-close and in-your-lap. Indeed, the audience is so close that, rather than being on the other side of the “Fourth Wall,” we felt that we actually were the Fourth Wall.
This archeological team is working on a very significant dig — they have discovered the remains of a city that predates the arrival of Europeans on this continent by hundreds of years, a city of “Mound Builders.” August Howe is the head archeologist; his wife, Cynthia Howe, is a photographer; and they are accompanied by their daughter Kirsten Howe (who the program describes as a “Bored and Ignored Teenager”).
Dan Loggins is a second archeologist, and he is accompanied by his pregnant wife Jean Loggins (a gynecologist on maternity leave). The team is renting an old house, and their landlord’s son Chad Jasker is a handyman who is frequently in-and-out of the house on business and/or pleasure.
During this slice of their lives, August Howe’s sister, Delia (D.K.) Eriksen moves in with them “temporarily.” Delia is a famous author who has just been discharged from a hospital, where she had landed due to (among other causes) what appears to have been extreme substance abuse; she needs a place to rehabilitate, and staying with her brother seems to be her only option; neither of the siblings is happy with the arrangement.
This brother-sister relationship, however, is not the only one in the world of the play that is experiencing strain. Indeed, every character is having to deal with significant issues. Deception, betrayal, disillusion, and harassment abound.
Dramatist Lanford Wilson creates a frame for the story of that final year of the dig by beginning the play with a scene that takes place the following year. In April of 1972, August Howe is dictating his report into a mini-tape-recorder and viewing slides from a carousel slide-show projector. As he narrates the episodes of the previous June, they come to life as flashbacks on another part of the stage. August, on occasion, must step into the world of a flashback to enact his role. This technique of flashback-flash forward could easily become confusing to an audience, but Lanford Wilson’s writing and Wendy Ward’s direction combine to keep everything quite clear.
Chad Jasker (played by Brandon Cooke) is the antagonist of the piece. His father owns not only the house that the team rents but also the land on which the dig is taking place. He has visions of mega-dollar signs that threaten to be frustrated down the road.
Chad is a red-necked, sexually-charged hedonist with romantic designs on two of the women and one of the men. Cooke plays him with an appropriate degree of clueless bravado. The choice of costume and hairstyle for this character are spot-on. Everything about Cooke’s portrayal fairly screams that Chad is, indeed, “capable of anything.”
Rick Skarbez imbues August Howe with a double-vision of the action. That is, Skarbez is careful to make sure that we are aware that August sees the action at times from the vantage point of June 1971 and at other times from that of April 1972. August’s dedication to the dig is ever-apparent, and the strain (and straining) in his relationships with his wife and his sister are both apparent and believable.
Emma Jo McKay, as Cynthia Howe, garners our sympathy for the character as she cares for the others. Cynthia is the only character with a genuine interest and affection for the down-and-out (and severely depressed) Delia. McKay makes this clear without going overboard.
Evitt Emerson plays a (most-of-the-time) laid back Dan Loggins, whose passion for his work overflows in a scene in which he imagines a central character in the world of the Mound Builders. The playwright seems to want this character to embody the optimism that we humans have in our tendency to create stories and mythologies. Emerson’s charisma enables him to deliver “in spades.” The “need to build” and the tendency “to speculate” that are mentioned in the dialogue merge in Emerson’s long speech that begins with a meditation on a “bone awl.”
Alexandra Petkus has a quite a load to carry as Jean Loggins. Jean had been a National Spelling Bee Champion in her youth, and a resultant tendency to spell out in her every word she ever heard landed her in a psychiatric ward. Petkus’ mannerisms make it easy to believe that the tendency to regress is always there, and her regressions never catch us off-guard. In addition, the character has to repel Chad’s advances without being too negative and thereby causing friction in their world. Petkus walks this tightrope quite deftly.
Tal Chatterjee’s Kirsten Howe remains “bored and ignored” without becoming boring and ignore-able — a narrow line to toe.
The most difficult role, we think, was that of Delia (D.K.) Eriksen. Margery Rinaldi is able to navigate the emotional roller-coaster that this character rides while maintaining the even-keeled “don’t bother me” faÃ§ade that is so important to her self-preservation.
As mentioned above, the single-row audience seating makes this production very intimate and immediate. The set, divided about 85 percent 1971-summer-house and 15 percent 1972-office is quite realistic down to such details as running water in the sink, peeling paint, a “church-key” bottle opener, and a light that comes on when the refrigerator door opens. And the abovementioned audio/visual tools are quite period specific. Stage business include the choice of such naturalistic details as the making (and eating) of sandwiches and the rolling (and smoking) of a joint.
From the Department of Picky-Picky:
- On opening night, volume was an issue — much of the early dialogue could not be heard. By 20 minutes into the show, that had been corrected, but we did find ourselves wondering what we had missed.
- Even though being seated right on the border between the world-of-the-play and “our” world has distinct advantages, there is one significant drawback. Specifically, when a conversation is in progress between characters on opposite ends of the stage, the “long distance” makes it difficult to focus on the entire conversation. We felt as though we were watching a tennis match, swaying our heads back-and-forth between the two characters. We would like to suggest a rule-of-thumb: unless you are seeking a specific effect, never block the distance between two characters who are conversing further than the distance between audience and the midpoint between the two.
- And here we run the risk of being too picky-picky, but…. The “explosive” scene might have played better had it been more understated. As it was, it worked, but it seemed somewhat over-the-top. Bringing it down might make the ensuing action and revelation even more poignant.
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 3rd Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-mound-builders/Event?oid=10101937.
Ward Theatre Company presents THE MOUND BUILDERS, in association with Ward Acting Studio, at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 12 and 13, 2:30 p.m. Jan. 14, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19 and 20, 2:30 p.m. Jan. 21, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26 and 27, 2:30 p.m. Jan. 28, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 and 10, 2:30 p.m. Feb. 11, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16, 17, and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at 4905 Pine Cone Dr., Suites 11 & 12, Durham, North Carolina 27707.
BOX OFFICE (scroll down): http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/contact/.
CONTACT: 919-973-2522, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/contact/.
PRESENTERS: http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/, http://www.wardstudio.com/, https://www.facebook.com/WardTheatreCompany/, and https://www.facebook.com/wardactingstudio/.
The Mound Builders (1975 Off-Broadway drama): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=1945 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.) and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/4687 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Lanford Wilson (Lebanon, MO-born playwright and screenwriter, 1937-2011): http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/5031 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/lanford-wilson-7136 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0933730/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanford_Wilson (Wikipedia).
Wendy Ward (director and WTC artistic director): http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/wendy-ward/ (WTC bio) and https://www.facebook.com/WendyWardActingTeacher (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.