In the Sackett Group’s thoughtful and moving revival of Lanford Wilson’s talky and rather obtuse 1975 drama, “The Mound Builders,” a small, committed group of over-educated white people are struggling to preserve a disempowered community’s hold on a tiny parcel of land against some soulless money-grubbers.
Is it any surprise that the play is being presented within a stone’s throw of the proposed Atlantic Yards mega-development?
But that’s where the similarities end. The play’s preservationists are a cadre of archeologists on a dig in Illinois, and the site is the burial ground of a long-extinct indigenous tribe. The play uses the lost civilization that “vanished without a trace” as a symbol for the frayed connections between the characters, few of whom seem to be able to sustain a relationship without betrayal, cruelty or self-destruction.
The production, presented in the worn-but-cozy theater of Fort Greene’s Brooklyn Music School, sometimes feels amateurish with a slapdash set and a few fumbled lines, but overall is a credible and often well-acted revival of an overlooked play.
Professor August Howe (played by a patrician and melancholy Gregory L. Wilson) and his wife, Cynthia (Annie Carlson), have been returning to the site for summer excavations, with groups of students providing free labor. This year, torrential rains and a rising lake threaten to wipe out the burial mounds that may contain rare artifacts. That is, if a proposed Holiday Inn or the extension of a local highway doesn’t get built over them first.
If it already doesn’t look good for the sacred land, further complications include the fracturing of the marriage of the lead archeologist and his pregnant physician wife, and a visit by Howe’s famous writer sister (played by Joanna Blais) who needs a place to crash in between drug binges. All that is needed in this explosive situation is a match, which appears in the form of the intense, sexually omnivorous son of the local landowner — the Australian-born actor Paul Newport is both creepy and appealing in the role in a “Fatal Attraction” kind of way — who has made a deal with the archeologists for their excavation of the site.
Set in the kitchen of the house where the archeologists are bivouacked, the play is a series of conversations between the characters, each revealing their own particular worldview that, in some fashion, keeps them alienated from the others. The professor lectures, the wife harangues, the writer opines wittily, but no one seems to be making much of a connection.
The talented six-member cast, led by Wilson, does a fine job of illustrating the missed signals and neurotic tics of these supposedly sophisticated denizens of our modern times. Jonathan Pereria and Anna Pond, as the young couple, are particularly poignant, embodying the energetic enthusiasm of young adults who are still trying to harness their overflowing emotions.
A series of slide projections, ostensibly part of a presentation Professor Howe is preparing later on the summer’s tragic events, acts as a sort of framing device and commentary, but are often blurry or distorted as viewed on the scrim curtain and leaf-decorated panels along the back wall of the set. They could stand as a metaphor for the out-of-focus lives being sharply presented by this ambitious company.
The production, directed by Obie-winner John C. Scheffler (who also designed the set), intelligently exposes the fragility of the veneer of civilization and the hunger for connection that remains as strong in our contemporary landscape as it was among agrarian tribes 2,500 ago.
“The Mound Builders,” will run at the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse (126 St. Felix St. at Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene) through April 29. Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors. For information, visit www.sackettgroup.org.