The Mound Builders opens in August Howe’s study in Urbana, Illinois, on a February morning. August, an archaeology professor, begins to dictate a report on the previous summer’s failed expedition to Blue Shoals, in southern Illinois. As he dictates, slides depicting scenes from the expedition are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. The slides show the lake that threatened to flood his team’s excavation, the old farmhouse where the team and their families lived, construction of a dam close to the house and their excavation, a bulldozer, and their excavation site.
As August narrates over the slides, the scene fades into the previous summer, and the lights come up on an interior: the large living, dining, and working area of the old farmhouse. Most of the play’s action takes place here, in a series of brief scenes that introduce the central characters, detail their personal lives, and follow the progress of their expedition to discover evidence of early American Indian cultures. Scenes of the summer in Blue Shoals are interrupted by interludes in which August provides commentary in order to introduce background information or heighten suspense.
In the act’s second scene, Dan and Jean Loggins arrive at the farmhouse, the archaeological team’s summer home for the previous three years. Dan Loggins, also an archaeologist, is August Howe’s junior partner; Jean Loggins, a gynecologist, is Dan’s wife. Chad Jasker, the landowner’s son and a friend of Dan, has driven them to the house and helps to carry in their belongings. Dan tells August privately that he wants to keep the pregnancy of his wife, Jean, a secret from the students helping with the dig. The next evening Chad and August arrive at the house with Delia, August’s ill sister, a well-known writer. Dan describes a difficult day at the dig. A bit of a poet, Dan believes the early American Indians built mounds for essentially the same reasons motivating builders today. “A person isn’t happy,” he says, “unless he’s building something.”
The quick passage of summer at Blue Shoals is represented in a series of short scenes separated by abrupt blackouts, like slides in a slide show. In one scene, alone with Jean, Chad asks her to go with him to see a model of the county as it will look, he says, after Jasker’s development is built. An interstate highway will soon pass close to Blue Shoals, he says, and the new dam will create a large lake. On the lakeshore, resort accommodations will be built on land owned by Chad and his father, making them rich. Jean is happy for Chad but is fascinated with the process by which rural areas can be transformed by “the signing of an energy bill in Washington.” As Jean begins to leave the room, Chad suddenly expresses his desire for her. Jean tells him to “get lost.” Later, when Chad and Cynthia Howe are alone, he asks Cynthia for money, which she gives him. Events subsequently reveal that Chad and Cynthia are lovers.
The scene shifts back to Urbana in February. Alone in his study, August attempts to organize what he calls “shards” from the expedition. He catalogs a personal tragedy, including a separation from his wife and daughter and an impending resignation from his position at the university.
(The entire section is 1352 words.)