SALT LAKE CITY — A play with ten women in the cast is rare. A play with ten women in the cast that passes the Bechdel test is rarer. A play for ten women in the cast written by a woman, directed by a woman, and featuring incredible and moving ensemble work from ten strong female actors is a theatrical unicorn.
The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe premiered in 2016, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2017, and is a relevant play in 2018. All of the action takes place on an indoor soccer pitch where the members of a competitive team play each week. Each scene acts as a developmental vignette, introducing character conflicts and revealing layers at the same time. The action starts out the same: the team captain leads to team in warm ups and drills pre-game. The dialogue overlaps and the audience is forced to adjust their perceptions in order to catch all of the information DeLappe’s script relays. The characters are clear from the second the lights come up: the leader, the joker, the world-saver, the rebel, the stoic, the new kid who turns out to be just what everyone needed, the brain, the naif, and the loyal friend. It sounds like a typical sports movie where a team of intrepid heroes bond against a common enemy to forge an unbreakable bond that will serve them when facing future adversity. It’s clear the the script uses this popular theme as a base, but the elevated plot matched with Alexandra Harbold‘s directing takes the story to new and complex levels that emphasize the journey young people take as they fight the world, each other, and often themselves.
DeLappe’s characters never become tired tropes, but rather are merely the first layer of complicated young women struggling to balance the transition from childhood to adulthood. The dialogue bounces across a wide range of topics from menstrual pads to classic gossip to the Khmer Rouge. It is jarring and hilarious, mostly because of the certitude with which each team member delivers their opinion. (Note how I said “delivers,” and not “speaks.” One character is alarmingly silent for most of the play and that silence speaks volumes.)
As a secondary teacher, I spend my days with teenagers, and I regularly feel as if I am hosting my own National Geographic special on human adolescence and its societal rituals. Hence, I am attuned to accuracy of portrayals of teenagers on stage. DeLappe, Harbold, and the nine young actors playing the high school age soccer players portray this stage of life painfully, unapologetically, incandescently. These are competitive women and that is not an easy post to fill, especially while navigating all the difficulties of coming into one’s own. These are not archetypes attempting to placate the need for equity or diversity. The characters are authentic portraits of intricate lives told in cumulative snapshots. The scenes provide a glimpse into one aspect of life for these women. Very little is revealed about their outside lives and relationships beyond where their lives intersect each week. Each character is known by their team number and position played, keeping a certain amount of distance between the relationships. Yes, many of these characters have known each other for years and they share half of everything through conversation, but much of their lives are compartmentalized between each obligation these young people of privilege have. However, the privilege that these characters have—several mentions of the cost of the team, private schools, and parental wealth are in the script—does not make them immune from the pain of life.
Each of the performers is first-rate, but some actors were particularly noteworthy. Ireland Nichols as #00 hears and sees everything and anchors the team not only as the goalie, but also as the physical representation of the desire each has a burgeoning athlete. #00 is the mostly silent stoic with physicality that is almost constant and the desperate need for success so sorely obvious that it is heart-wrenching. Alison Jo Stroud as #46 is the ringer of the piece. Her story is the most honest, as is the portrayal. Stroud and Harbold make no apologies for #46’s differences from the other team members. I was afraid at first that this character was going to be a cop out, explaining the bluntness and lack of ability to read social cues away with a slap-dash label of behavioral disorder. The script does not make that mistake, nor does the directorial subtext. #46 has seen more of the world than her teammates and therefore does not have the same responses. She speaks her truth from the beginning, the others have to learn to listen.
Louise Dapper as #14 mastered the aggression and perceived immortality of a star athlete, full of bravado and daring yet vulnerable and uncertain when faced with varying expectations away from the safety of the pitch. This need for subtle duality is the kind of thing that can break of a performance, but Dapper is masterful and never telegraphs her next move, making #14 capricious and compelling. Finally, SLAC veteran Tracie Merrill is absolutely touching in her appearance near the end of the play. I won’t say more than that Merrill is the only adult that directly interacts with the team, and her reason for doing so breaks the wall of delineation between the indoor sport and the outside world in a violent and poignant way.
The technical team supports all of the excellent work of the ensemble with minimal but effective design. Erik Reichert‘s set has interest and depth while being primarily made of AstroTurf. William Peterson‘s lighting is softer than the harsh florescent of an indoor sporting venue, giving the show a film-like quality while still subtly highlighting the action. Kerstin Davis‘s costumes manage to unify yet differentiate the characters. I especially liked the individual touches given to help communicate character traits such as matching hair bows and brightly colored shoe laces. Jennifer Jackson’s sound design is the true standout. The pre-show music and underscore is tightly packed with female artists and songs featuring lyrics of empowerment. What is great about Jackson’s selections is that nothing is cliché or ironic. These are songs that set the stage and reflect the action.
The Wolves is an entirely cohesive production without a weak link. The creative work both on and off stage is strong and has created an obvious atmosphere of collaboration while maintaining respect for individual talents. Again, The Wolves is a theatrical unicorn.