BWW Review: MR. WOLF is Thought-provoking, Dark, Confounding at Cleveland Play House
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
Over the last several years much attention has been drawn to the abduction of children and, in rare cases, their return. A short time ago, the Cleveland area had the spotlight placed on it when three young ladies, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, were freed after their many years of captivity in the Tremont home of Ariel Castro. This event makes one of the basic tenets of MR. WOLF, now on stage at Cleveland Play House's Outcalt Theatre, quite inciting to local audiences.
In MR. WOLF, Cleveland area native, Rajiv Joseph, one of the new breed of young emerging playwrights, has taken the theme of child abduction and looks at it from what happens to a child who was not abused during her years of capture, but treated as a special being.
Joseph, a Cleveland Heights High graduate, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, which starred Robin Williams on Broadway, and was staged by Ensemble Theatre several years ago. A multi-award winner, he most recently was recognized with the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation $150,000 Award for his THE GUARDS AT THE TAJ.
Joseph is noted for writing about faith, belief, survival and closely-held truths. His MR. WOLF is no exception.
As the play starts, we are exposed to a tween, doing what appears to be designs of the universe on a blackboard. She then walks a pattern on a braided rug on the floor of a large room, with a massive wall of books. This is her "home."
We soon find out that Theresa, the girl, lives with Mr. Wolf, an astrophysicist and a teacher at a local college. He has taught Theresa, obviously a very gifted child, how to think in scientific terms of reasoning and thought. She seems to be on the brink of understanding the concept of infinity, a term used to apply to whatever we don't understand.
Mr. Wolf refers to her as a prophet and encourages her to always ask questions and seek fact answers. Her mantra is that ideas and information must be, "specific to me."
He explains that she understands things no one else will understand, but now, "the world is coming!" He gives her her first taste of chocolate, a new pair of tennis shoes and a coat.
Who is this man? Is he her grandfather, a teacher, or maybe family friend who is tutoring this gifted child? No, as we soon find out. He abducted her at age three in his quest to find a child protégé who could fulfill his dream of creating a "prophet." The "world is now" coming in the form of the authorities to free her from his grasp.
In a series of scenes, we are exposed to her father, Michael, who has maniacally searched for Theresa, at the expense of his marriage. Her wealthy mother, Hana, who appears to have run from facing the stress of the child's disappearance by moving to a far-away city. She did, however, offer a million dollar reward, which eventually led to the exposure of Mr. Wolf. And, Julie, a woman whose young daughter was also abducted, who met Michael at a meeting of survivors of child abduction, and eventually married him.
Much like a change in the heavens, the script examines the cosmic fallout from a major shift in the dynamics caused by Theresa's return. An explosion that not only affects the family, but Theresa, herself.
Questions abound. Were Mr. Wolf's influences on Theresa good or bad? Will her coping mechanism of finding a world full of conundrums be more than she can psychologically handle. Will she be able to return to the "normal" world without lingering effects of Mr. Wolf? Will Julie and Michael continue to find solace in each other now that his journey to find his lost child is ended, but her emotional ravages continue? Will Michael agree to reunite with Hana in order to preserve the family unit? What will be the fallout of revelation that Theresa was not the only child Mr. Wolf abducted?
Though in some ways the script is captivating, some might question decisions Joseph made in the stories development. Should the character of Mr. Wolf have been more fully fleshed out so we better understand what drove him to seek out the children? Should the meeting and connection between Julie and Michael have been clearer? What brought the shy Michael and the strong willed Hana together in the first place? Is the opening scene so abstract that the audience may be overwhelmed and confused and turn off?
Even with those issues, the overall effect of the script is powerful. The many questions it asks are all part of the strength, rather than a weakness of the story development. That is, unless audience members like their theater to have a clear beginning, middle and end, all tied together for them, complete with a happy ending.
Giovanna Sardelli's directing keeps the play moving along at an appropriate pace and the characters are as clearly developed as the script allows.
Timothy R. Mackabee's set is a fascinating mélange of moving platforms, scenery that comes courtesy of the electronic traps in the theatre's floor, a backdrop of stars and the universe, and an impressive wall of what appears to be hundreds of books. It makes for smooth scene transitions.
The cast is outstanding. Julie Brett, who has a long theatrical history that makes her fifteen year old looks, seem like an aberration. She not only portrays Theresa fluently, but totally becomes Theresa. This is an impressive and flawless performance.
Rebecca Brooksher gives us a Julie who is compassionate while deep in depression. This is a character who could have faded into the background with a less competent performance.
Todd Cerveris gives life to Michael, a conflicted, communicatively challenged man who finds himself in grief, relief and then emotional conflict.
Jessica Dickey has little to work with as Hana, whose history is only sketchily laid out. The lasting image is of a less than nice, self-absorbed woman, who puts her needs and wants above all else.
John de Lancie fascinates as the evil Mr. Wolf, whose life and motives are not made clear in the script, but is maniacal in his purpose for Theresa.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: MR. WOLF is a study of a girl, a man and a family in turmoil. The dark drama leaves many unanswered questions that should tweak after-production discussions. It is a play which will confound some, and exhilarate others (including me). It is the kind of script that CPH should do more of in order to stretch the audience to be exposed to a wide range of theater.
MR. WOLF, which is part of "New Ground CPH" runs through April 24, 2016, in the Outcalt Theatre in Hanna complex of PlayhouseSquare.
Other offerings in the 2016 New Ground CPH, which runs from April 14-23 are: THE GOOD PEACHES by Quiara Alegria Hudes, April 14-16, a collaboration with the Cleveland Orchestra; FEED, Cleveland Heights' playwright Eric Coble's new play, in a reading on April 23 @ 2:30 in the Helen; and LITTLE ROW BOAT OR, CONJECTURE, Kristen Greenidge's Roe Green Award Winner for New Play, in a reading on April 23 @ 5 PM in the Helen. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.