By Beth Rigel Daugherty
Neil Havens, director of The Rice
Players, chose The Mound Builders because
he was fascinated by its strong feminist
theme and challenging structure. "I don't
like a play in which everything is immediately apparent," says Havens. Certainly,
The Mound Builders meets these qualifications. It is a play filled with both parallels and conflicts-a work that allows ample room for audience speculation.
On a January evening, the actors arrive for rehearsal of The Mound Builders.
No men tonight-the work will center a-
round an important women's scene which
Havens calls "The Nurturers." As they talk,
then warm to each other and the mood of
the play, the women unconsciously reflect
one of the work's major conflicts—that
between men and women. They talk about
Subtly, they move to another level
of interaction in which they create a world
of trust and support. They play what
Havens calls warm-up games. In pairs, they
lean on each other, imitate each other's
body and facial expressions, share each
other's weight, explore each other's faces.
They rehearse, move from reality into the
reflection of reality, and Juli Havens,
Nancy Dingus, Margaret Elsea, and Vicki
Bell become Kirsten Howe, Jean Loggins,
Cynthia Howe, and Delia Eriksen. As they
progress, they transfer the support and
warmth exhibited during the games to the
women sitting in the living room of an old
farmhouse in Blue Shoals, Illinois...
The title of the play may conjure up
grade-school images of ancient Indian burial grounds. But in Lanford Wilson's play,
the mound builders become both a metaphor and a vehicle for questions about the
nature of civilization—men, women, and
the relationships between them.
While two archaeologists dig for clues
to the lives of the mound builders, the
four women around them search for meaning in their own lives. Thus, Wilson forces
the audience to do some digging of its own.
Tension between the men's and
women's work is established early in Act 1.
August Howe, an archaeology professor,
and his assistant, Dan Loggins, arrive at
the dig in Blue Shoals, Illinois. With them
are their wives, Cynthia Howe and Dr. Jean
Loggins. Both women have careers of their
own. Cynthia is a photographer; Jean, a
Cynthia uses her talent to take endless pictures of her daughter, Kirsten, and
to document her husband's progress, while
Jean, pregnant, falls behind in her own
work as she types Dan's field notes.
August mocks his wife's work, telling his secretary that "Mrs. Howe, with
stunning evidence to the contrary, persists
in believing she is Diane Arbus." His assistant, Dan, rewards his wife's decision
to type for him with a pat on the head.
Delia Eriksen, August's sister, has
been sent to Blue Shoals to recover from
a bout with alcohol. She does not want to
be there, and August clearly shows the
feeling is mutual. He tells Cynthia to
"laugh at her, ignore her. Father did."
Chad Jasker, whose father owns the
land where the dig is located, has a grand
commercial plan for the site. An interstate
highway and a dam will turn the spot into
a tourist attraction, complete with Holiday
Inn, restaurants, marinas, and tennis
courts. Poor and uneducated, he dreams of
being rich. Chad's idea for the land obviously conflicts with the archaeologists'
plans; he makes the conflict even more
personal by chasing Jean and sleeping with
Director Havens makes the bond
between the women very clear in Act 1
by physically grouping them on the stage
in "The Nurturers." Later, when the
underlying tensions of Act 1 explode into
the deception and violence of Act 2, he
agains arranges them to form a unified
background in stark contrast to the men's
Havens seems committed to plays
with strong female characters; last year,
The Rice Players appeared in an excellent
production of Chekov's The Three Sisters.
He encourages actors to analyze their characters' motivations; he asks questions and
makes suggestions as they rehearse, but
when they want to talk about their interpretations, he listens. Usually, he combines their comments with his own interpretation in his direction.
Kirsten (and Juli) Kirsten Howe, 11,
is chiefly a silent presence on stage.
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The Mound Builders, presented by
The Rice Players, will run February 13
through February 18. Performances are at
8 p.m., Hamman Hall, Rice University.
For ticket information, call 527-4040.
She observes and listens intently, preparing
herself to be a woman. There is an implied
pressure on Kirsten to give up her innocence-her father shares secrets with her
that he does not share with his wife.
Kirsten never articulates her own needs,
and only in the presence of her aunt Delia
does she become somewhat animated.
Juli Havens, who plays Kirsten,
strongly identifies with the character. "I
also grew up in an adult world. I was always watching, observing." Juli, in contrast
to Kirsten, is confident and talkative. A
student at Lanier Jr. High School, she
knows that she wants to study biochemistry for its practicality, but she won't give
up acting, which she loves-'T can always
act in community theatres."
Joan (and Nancy) Jean Loggins,
married for less than a year, impressed
Chad Jasker as an independent woman
who knew what she wanted. Yet, as the
play opens, she suppresses her strength and
plays her role in the marriage by the book
—Dan's book. Nancy Dingus, a German
major, understands Jean. When she was 18,
Nancy went to Germany alone for a year.
"I know what it's like to be completely on
my own, and I don't want that kind of independence."
Nancy also identifies with Jean's
self-effacement—"I often do what is easiest
to avoid conflict." In fact, the similarity
between Jean and Nancy is so strong that
Nancy insists, "I was typecast!"
Rather than read her medical books
and articles, Jean becomes a secretary for
Dan; yet, she resents Cynthia's implication
that she may give up her career after the
baby is born-or go into pediatrics.
Jean was a bright child, a champion
speller-a freak, as she says. Delia's comment is, "We're all freaks-all us bright
sisters." Not only bright, Jean is very much
in touch with her emotions and the atmosphere around her. She feels close to the
baby within her, and very early senses
tht something is odd about this summer.
Cynthia (and Margaret) Cynthia
Howe realizes she has suppressed her own
identity, and feels trapped within it, but
she needs the protection marriage affords.
She has invested a great deal of herself in
August's work. It is a sacrifice difficult to
discard, even though August refuses to
admit how important her talent is to his
own career. Her bitterness leads to her
affair with Chad. Cynthia likes her
daughter and doesn't patronize her, but
seems unaware that Kirsten might need
more guidance. She has subordinated career to family and suggests that Jean will
do the same. Her early hint that women
will always serve men is reflected in
Margaret's memory of automatically making her brothers' beds.
Margaret Elsea sympathizes with the
character of Cynthia. "I remember I always defined myself through men. All my
friends were boys, and I thought girls were
dumb." Just as Cynthia gains strength from
her relationships with the women at Blue
Shoals, Margaret has discovered at Rice
that she can talk to and be friends with
Delia (and Vicki) Delia Eriksen, a
physical and spiritual wreck at the beginning of the play, gains strength and courage as it progresses. Although at one time
more dependent on male approval than
Director: Neil Havens. Assistant
director: Sheila Louis. Lighting: Scott
McDonald and Peter Redding. Publicity
and costumes: Barbara Ford. Set: Randy
either Jean or Cynthia, she comes to realize that she drank to cope with her fear
of rejection: "I have been humiliating
myself because people expected it of me."
In the end, she is strong enough to thank
August for telling her their father laughed
at her writing. "Dad's opinion was always
too important to me."
Often abrasive, Delia can also be
sensitive, even prophetic. She knows more
about the relationships at Blue Shoals
than anyone else; the others are often unaware she is sitting in the dark, watching.
Although she is not infallible, Delia's
powers of observation and vision make her
comments about men, women, art, and
life carry a great deal of authority in the
Vicki Bell feels close to the role of
Delia. "For me, security would be knowing I don't have to depend on anyone for
anything." She describes herself as a loner
who does not allow men to be overly important in her life. Vicki finds it is easy to
live by an independent creed, particularly
at Rice. "I think women are perceived as
equals here. At Rice, it's a joke to say a
woman can't do or be something."
Neil Havens and the actors agree—
one of Lanford Wilson's main points is
that women see and think differently
from men. Some women may be uncomfortable with this dichotomy; the "rational/intuitive" argument has been used often
enough in the past. However, this and other oppositions in the play are not rigid
ones, and Wilson generally presents women's intuition, introspection, and endurance as positive, rather than negative, traits.
In contrast, his portrayal of the men
in The Mound Builders is often a harsh
one. Although these characters can be
lovable, helpful, or friendly, they turn
from problems they don't want to face,
and are unaware of the women's needs.
August, Dan, and Chad each seek different
goals-but each, in his own way, tends to
separate and organize, label and compartmentalize, divide and conquer.
August, played by John McConnell,
talks only about his work, a search for
data with a trowel. He either bores people
or sarcastically derides them. Kirsten is his
"alleged daughter"; Cynthia is an "ex-
relation by marriage" and a "horse," and
Delia is dying "again."
Dan (Steve Ortego) is the partner
with a dream, but his vision of harmony
with nature is strictly a male vision—subservient women make that harmony possible. He wants Jean to play the admiring
squaw to his Cochise.
Chad, played by Roger Heymann,
finds it hard to comprehend the value of
archaeological discoveries-to him, they
are abstracts that cannot be translated into cash. Materialistic, sensual, and literally capable of anything,
Many conflicts and parallels exist in
The Mound Builders, making it a rich
study of life, and of the people who live
it. Wilson has written a play which demands audience concentration, but the
intensity of his lines will both reward and
stimulate the playgoer. Some may feel
ambivalent about the ending; this is what
Wilson intends. The Mound Builders,
Neil Havens explains, "does not provide
answers; it deliberately leaves the audience with questions."
Page 8 February 1978 HOUSTON BREAKTHROUGH