Through Sunday, Feb. 18
Ward Theatre, Durham

In 2016, Ward Theatre Company beat some very high odds with its first production in Durham, Jacuzzi, in which we couldn’t pick out the two students making their stage debuts among the quartet of actors.

We can’t say the same of Ward Theatre’s new show, The Mound Buildersnot when several actors in a group of seven students and graduates from Wendy Ward’s acting studio ultimately didn’t convince us in their roles.

In Lanford Wilson’s cautionary drama from 1975, dangerous schisms arise between self-absorbed researchers and poor, uneducated farmers in the backwoods of Illinois because neither group truly understands or respects what’s most important to the other. The unease is palpable when smitten good-ol’-boy Chad (Brandon Cooke) refuses to take no for an answer after Jean (Alexandra Petkus), the wife of a visiting anthropologist, turns down his marriage proposal. Other, more hidden discourtesies further destabilize the mix.

We savored Evit Emerson’s work as Dan, a charismatic young anthropologist who rhapsodizes about the enigmatic Native Americans referred to by the play’s title. Emma Jo McKay anchors this troubled enclave of academics in the supporting role of Cynthia.

But Rick Skarbez seemed nearly a generation too young to play August Howe, the pompous senior anthropologist who presides over this doomed archaeological dig. And Ward’s work with Margery Rinaldi yielded an inadequately developedand improbably polite and circumspectcharacter for August’s sister, Delia, supposedly an ultra-high-maintenance jet-setting novelist fresh out of rehab.

We question the wisdom of mounting this production with rotating casts (different actors appear on different nights) when the one we saw lacked the personnel to fully deliver the work.