Each of us, regardless of gender, race, or creed, actively seeks to protect that which we feel is important. And, in so doing, we oftentimes run up against a fellow human being whose own desires to protect what is his are opposed to what we want.

This simple description seems the most succinct way to describe the events of The Mound Builders, by Lanford Wilson, currently onstage at the Ward Theatre Company in Durham. The show takes place over the three months of summer on the site of an archaeological dig in the Midwest along the Mississippi River. There are seven people involved, all of whom are actively seeking to protect what is most important to him or her. But no two people seem to be protecting the same thing.

August Howe (Rick Scarbez) is Chief Archaeologist, and this dig will either make or break him. He is joined by his wife, Cynthia (Emma Jo McKay), who is the photographer for the dig; their teenage daughter, Kirsten (Tal Chatterjee), who is volunteering at the dig; archaeologist Dan Loggins (Evit Emerson); and his wife, Jean (Alexandra Petkus), who is currently an intern to be a gynecologist. She is pregnant, but because of a family history of miscarriages, she is not overjoyed about it. Joining the group at the last minute is August’s sister, Delia “D.K.” Eriksen (Margery Rinaldi), an author who has fallen on hard times and suffers from hypochondria. Finally, the son of the landowner who is allowing this dig has insinuated himself as the handyman for the team, more to keep an eye on them than anything else. He is Chad Jasker (Brandon Cooke), and he is looking for a big score following the start of a massive lake on his property, the creation of which will bring an interstate and community development, including a Holiday Inn. The lake, however, which is rising higher each day, threatens the dig with imminent and total immersion if these intrepid scientists don’t work at a breakneck speed to find something before all of the ancient city and the dig is submerged.

It takes very little time for us to learn that The Mound Builders is not so much about the ancient Native Americans who built these mounds as it is about the men and women who seek to learn about them.

A word about the theater at the Ward complex in Five Oaks, Durham: when you see a play at the Ward Theatre, you do not so much watch it from your seat in the audience; instead, the audience is immersed in the set of the performance. For this particular run, the audience capacity is limited to an intimate 20 seats, all of which run along the north wall of the set. We are literally in the house where the Howe expedition is camped, with a porch, a kitchen, an office space, and many more rooms upstage center. The effect is as if we were literally the “fly on the wall” who is the unseen viewer of this unfolding drama. Wendy Ward, director of The Mound Builders and the creator of the Ward Theatre, teaches the Meisner Technique, and all of the performers in the show are either graduates or current students of the Meisner approach.

Each actor adds to the growing tensions on set as the summer progresses. We watch as each person’s desires complicate the already stressed and pressured situation. We watch as the women, most of whom are not actually participating in the dig itself, move through and talk about what is happening. Delia, who is in fact the Chief Observer, sees more and learns more than anyone else about the powder keg that is building in the group. She sees that Cynthia is having an affair with Chad; that Chad is cultivating the friendship of Dan; and that, while he does both these things, he is actively pursuing the affections of Jean, Dan’s wife. She finally rejects him, refusing to go with him out of the house or allow him to further “put the moves on her” at all; but it is not until Chad learns that Jean is pregnant that he finally gets the picture. Meanwhile, Dan and August, who both feel there is something here to be found that will be a major contribution to the field, take the standard steps necessary to preserve the dig. This has the tangential result of the state rerouting the interstate highway to the far side of the lake, and this seemingly minor change in the overall scheme of things has the not-totally-unforeseen effect of completely destroying Chad Jasker’s dreams of an interstate interchange, a major development, and continued riches pouring into his pockets from the lake resort to be built at that exit.

These actors worked seamlessly to bring this play to an explosive and deadly climax. The characterizations and interactions of this ensemble completely submerged any vestige of the actor and made us see only the characters onstage.

The Mound Builders is amazingly subtle. For most of the first act, very little seems to be happening. But the pressure has been building from the first word spoken, and once it becomes evident, we cannot look away. This show was enervating, and only a strong and dynamic cast can pull it off at all. This cast did a marvelous job, and left us gasping at the end. It was a first-rate performance in an intimate and in-your-face setting. It is well worth your attention, but make your plans now; remember, the house is purposefully small. Remember, too, that the action is literally on top of you. If you like your action fast and furious, this play’s for you!

The Mound Builders continues through Sunday, February 18. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.