BWW Review: Full On Teen Female Bonding in THE WOLVES at Jungle Theater
There's a real dearth of plays about teenage girls, especially in a group, and especially where the focus is on the relationships amongst them rather than on how they are connected to male protagonists. So THE WOLVES, Sarah DeLappe's debut play, is a hugely welcome foray into one of the arenas of untold stories available to contemporary playwrights. I hope this play, and the recognition it has received (finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the Yale Drama Series Prize, as well as prestigious ensemble acting awards) together serve as a call to action for writers: Create complex central roles for and about girls!
THE WOLVES are a travel soccer team of highly competitive high school athletes, many hoping to be noticed and recruited by college coaches. Yes, they are fierce, and yes, they howl. They also grapple with issues as varied as (spoiler alert!) genocide and justice, social anxiety, love and sex and abortion, loyalty, injury, honesty, playing time, disordered eating, religious belief, how to play when you have your period, and death. Just as real young women do.
Playwright DeLappe has crafted early scenes that overlap voices and subjects faster than the audience can fully follow, a bit like a (sometimes foul-mouthed) fugue in contemporary language. It reminded me, oddly enough, of Mametesque dialogue, except here it is the particular voices of suburban American girls of varying ethnicities rather than white men fighting for position in the patriarchy.
Structured as six scenes over 90 minutes with no intermission, this play presents a staging challenge. We see a series of warm-up circles over a period of a few months, never any game action directly. Keeping these varied enough to hold audience attention requires directorial skill and precise, consistent visualization of offstage locations by the actors. It also requires some real ball skills, and Jungle's Artistic Director (and director of this show) Sarah Rasmussen was wise to hire her ensemble early and get them together with a bona fide soccer coach, Jen Larrick, starting last August to work on drills and skills. As a group, they pass the ball around the small Jungle stage, covered in a sweep of astroturf which curves up the back wall, with credible accuracy. We're to believe that most of them have been playing year-round (outdoor, indoor, and travel) since they were in elementary school.
The physical commitment visible in the ensemble throughout is most apparent in a wordless one-woman scene played by the goalie. Clearly driven by an emotional crisis on top of her innate competitiveness, she puts herself through a grueling set of solo drills that left the audience anxious and hushed in an early show.
The nine actors who comprise the team are joined by a tenth who plays Soccer Mom. Six are graduates of the University of MN/Guthrie Theater BFA program. Though somewhat older than the characters they play, each sketches a distinctive character, without the kind of condescension that can creep into playing young. They handle the overlapped dialogue with brio and project both vulnerability and aggression. As they grapple with conflict and tragedy, the rhythm of their talk changes to reflect their uncertainty about what to say and how to connect.
I have a lot of respect for the playwriting skills at work here. Still, as sympathetic as I am to the window this play provides into a world most of us never see--teen girls with no males and no adults around--I also have a few quibbles. Some moments edge close to stereotype. The drip-drip-drip way some crucial off stage events are revealed seems manipulative. A kind of compassionate sensitivity and intuition that is also part of teen girl life seems to be almost entirely missing.
Regardless, it is a treat to be in the presence of a production that grapples directly with what it is to be young, female and fierce. WOLVES runs at the Jungle through April 29.
Photo credit: Dan Norman