Off Broadway Reviews
The press materials encourage audiences to attend the plays in the order listed above, designating The Mound Builders as Part I and Sympathetic Magic as Part II in the program. Although they are discrete works and were written more than two decades apart, the plays do indeed complement each other, and they share common themes, analogous characters, and similar contexts. The production elements of both are rather spare, with just a few pieces of furniture and simple costumes, and only two designers, Joe D'Emilio (lighting) and Andrew Oppenheim (sound), are credited. Their contributions effectively fill in important details related to the geographic and atmospheric settings. The no-frills approach puts the emphasis squarely on the writing and the performances.
Originally produced in 1975 (and revived in 2013 by the Signature Theatre Company), The Mound Builders revolves around Professor August Howe (Jeffrey C. Wolf), who is leading an archaeological dig in Blue Shoals, Illinois. He is accompanied by his chief research assistant Dan Loggins (Carson Alexander). Because the dig will last through the summer, they have brought along their family members. These include Loggins's pregnant wife (Kelsey Claire), a gynecologist; Howe's wife Cynthia (Tamra Paselk), a photographer; and August and Cynthia's daughter Kirsten (Stella Marcus). Howe's sister Delia Eriksen (Angela Atwood), a famous novelist and perennial rehab habitué, joins them later and provides wry observation and opens old wounds. Relations among the housemates grow tense throughout the summer, and they are made even tenser by Chad Jasker (Steve Carlsen), the heir to the land on which the dig is taking place. Jasker insinuates himself within the group, and his interests and pursuits exceed the artifacts and remains the excavation may yield.
Mac McCarty, who was mentored by Wilson at Circle Rep (of which the playwright was one of the founders), directs the production with fervency and alacrity. Unfortunately, this is not the best approach for this ruminative and emotionally complex memory play. Some of the earlier scenes, for instance, are pitched with overwrought intensity, and as a result, the ending lacks affecting poignance. In addition, the actors apply Wilson's characteristic and distinctive overlapping dialogue to such a degree that the psychological lives of the characters emerge in small fits. At one point a character tells another that he doesn't "want to talk" but wants "to bludgeon," and this could just as well apply to the production's overall approach. Still, there are moments in which Wilson's lyricism and the depiction of the lost souls emerge in the occasional quietness.
Set in the Bay Area, the play begins with astronomer and academic Ian Anderson (Mitch Lerner) contemplating a grain of sand, which represents the puny visible universe compared with the fathomless cosmos in which it floats. Anderson is the center of an even more minuscule galaxy that includes his pregnant girlfriend Barbara (Taylor Lynn Carter); her half-brother, a priest, Don (Matthew Bechtold); and their anthropologist mother Liz Barnard (Katherine King). Also orbiting his world is his research partner Mickey Picco (Alexander Spears) and the smarmy university dean Carl Conklin White (W. Philip Rafferty). Church choir director Pauly Scott (Pethio Day) and Liz's research assistant Susan Olmsted (Athena Torres) complete the constellation.
Individually, the characters look for answers to their metaphysical quandaries in the stars, mythology, religion and art, but possibilities for emotional healing may be found closer to home. Except for a scene of extreme violence that is simultaneously too jarring and not brutal enough (considering the injuries the characters sustain), the company of actors effectively convey the characters' psychic scars and spiritual longing.
The Mound Builders and Sympathetic Magic are minor works by a major playwright, and the streamlined productions do not always show them off in the best light. Still, if The Lanford Wilson Project were to continue, I would willingly go along for the ride. And if they are looking for suggestions, I would recommend a triple bill featuring the three plays that make up the Talley Trilogy.
The Lanford Wilson Project: The Mound Builders (Part I) and Sympathetic Magic (Part II)