An online article mentions a World War II plane being discovered in the Sahara. We’ve just come off the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, a national preoccupation. And folks in Watervliet wrangle about what to do with the abandoned St. Patrick’s Church: preserve or dismantle.
Lanford Wilson’s “The Mound Builders,” a challenging play now in an excellent production at Stageworks/Hudson, explores the fascination of the quick with the dead, as a team of archaeologists races to excavate a Midwest site of burial mounds before the land is flooded for recreational use and a highway is laid down.
The play opens in 1975 with professor August Howe (Steven Patterson) dictating notes about a 1974 dig into a tape recorder for his secretary to transcribe, notes accompanied (for the audience’s benefit) by slides of the dig projected on the rear wall. In essence he’s creating his own artifacts, a human record only a little more sophisticated than the copper mask and bone tool the team uncovered. As we see during the course of the evening, there will always be questions about “what really happened” any place, any time, the nooks and crannies of human interaction being what they are.
The Mound Builders
WHERE: Kaliyuga Arts (at Stageworks Hudson, 41-A Cross St., Hudson)
WHEN: Through May 19
HOW MUCH: $20-$15
MORE INFO: (518) 822-9667 or www.stageworkshudson.org
The play takes place chiefly in a farmhouse near the Illinois dig. Howe’s companions include his ex-wife, Cynthia (Molly Parker-Myers); his assistant, Dan (Dan Fenaughty) and Dan’s pregnant wife, Jean (Lauren Murphy); landowner Chad (Jack Kesy); and Howe’s alcoholic sister, Delia (Louise Pillai), a noted author. Act I lays out most of the tensions among this crowd: Chad’s flirtations with Jean, Howe’s struggles with Cynthia and Delia, Dan’s preoccupation with the excavation, and the buddy-buddy relationship between Chad and Dan.
Following Wilson’s dialogue is stimulating because it’s often not linear. There are plenty of overlaps, and sometimes a response by one character merely glances off a previous comment. Mini arias emerge, letting us into the heart of the characters as they excavate their own pasts.
These strategies, which characterize Act I and half of Act II, work, and I found myself disappointed in a sudden — and conventional — plot twist midway through Act II, an explosion that doesn’t feel completely earned. It “satisfies,” I suppose, because something large happens, but I was interested enough in the characters not to need such climax, and I would have liked more unearthing, say, of the relationship between Delia and August.
The production, under John Sowle’s direction, is fast-paced and physical, and the set he has designed is realistic and theatrically clever. Kudos, as well, to Phil Elman’s rich sound palette. The ensemble work is tight. Patterson is credible as a man too busy with the past to pay much attention to the present. Parker-Myers plays a woman in the shadows on the lookout for an attentive man — or at least the anodyne of alcohol. Murphy’s Jean is an OB-GYN whose career is interrupted by pregnancy, but the prospect of a baby seems fraught with uncertainty. Nice work by both actresses.
Showier roles are beautifully filled by Kesy, pushy, sexy and shrewd as the ordinary Joe with big dreams. Fenaughty makes Dan a poet, sober or drunk or stoned, searching for meaning just as passionately as Chad searches for things. And Pillai’s Delia, lying on the couch like an oracle consulted by younger folks whose lives lie before them, is achingly fragile and tough.
I particularly liked a moment with the three women when Delia says, “We’re all freaks — all us bright sisters.” Indeed, that one line is a sharp trowel that digs cleanly beneath the surface of cultural gender roles.
It’s not an easy play, then, but one illuminated by the fine work in Hudson.