Like the Illinois archaeological site that is the subject of The Mound Builders, Lanford Wilson's 1975 play now being presented by Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center is dense and layered. The piece tackles such worthy subjects as what we learn from the past to the dangers of not understanding the true nature of others. And as befitting the subject matter, it is a work that probably benefits from repeated digging so one can fully appreciate its many keen, lyrical speeches and the numerous inherent lessons Wilson wants us to contemplate. Yet on first viewing, The Mound Builders can come off as talky, pretentious, and slightly perplexing.
The play is told in flashback by lead archaeologist Dr. August Howe (a low-key David Conrad), recalling the last year of what turns out to be an ill-fated, lengthy expedition to uncover what is buried in the mounds near a lake that is becoming a focal point for a new influx of commerce and tourism. Howe, his unhappy wife and fellow archaeologist Cynthia (Janie Brookshire) and daughter Kirsten (Rachel Resheff), are once again sharing a house with August's colleague, the enthusiastic if slightly hedonistic Dan Loggins (an appealing Zachary Booth) and his newly pregnant wife, Jean (Lisa Joyce), a gynecologist, as they struggle to piece together what few clues they've discovered from ancient civilizations.
Adding complexity to the household is the presence of August's sister Delia (Danielle Skraastad), a somewhat embittered famous novelist who has been sent there to recover from an unspecified illness and a globe-trotting life full of alcohol and drugs. Delia (or D.K. as she is sometimes called) has a very uneasy relationship with August and Cynthia. When she's not wallowing in doubt or self-pity, D.K. spends her time on the living room couch dispensing aphorisms and advice like some sort of philosopher. D.K. is given the bulk of Wilson's most piquant speeches (as well as his most difficult), and Skraastad latches on to them with relish. The actress also never shies away from making us realize why Delia can be a difficult person to be around, yet she also creates a great sense of empathy for a character who is clearly her own worst enemy.
Still, the real catalyst for the drama in The Mound Builders is frequent visitor Chad Jasker (Will Rogers), the son of the house's owner. Chad claims to take some interest in the archaeologists' work. But since he stands to gain financially from the area's development (his family dreams of operating a restaurant that will cater to the new visitors) it comes as little surprise when his resentment bubbles to the surface. Moreover, in addition to the fact that he is sleeping with Cynthia, he claims to be madly in love with Jean and even seems to harbor a possible attraction to Dan. All of this further complicates his relationship with the visiting archaeologists. Yet whether Chad is actually the outsider is one of the many things Wilson wants us to think about.
However, director Jo Bonney appears to have encouraged Rogers to give a slightly idiosyncratic performance, with some off-kilter line readings and behavioral tics that make us wonder if Chad is mentally unstable long before the play wants us to consider it.
As is so often true at Signature, the production values are first-rate, including Neil Patel's spare-yet-vivid rendering of the house, Rui Rita's atmospheric lighting, and Darron L. West's evocative sound design. Most important, the company is to be commended for living up to its mission by celebrating the work of one of America's most important playwrights and resurrecting one of his seldom-produced pieces with care.