BWW Review: Jaclynn Jutting's Direction of a Remarkable Cast Makes Actor's Bridge's THE WOLVES The Show to See
Some 36 hours later and I am still struggling to wrap my mind around one of 2018's most startling theater productions: Actor's Bride Ensemble's thoroughly engaging mounting of Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves, in which director Jaclynn Jutting and a cast of fiercely forthright actors deliver a gut punch in the form of a play quite unlike anything I've seen before and may never see again. But damn, am I glad I had the chance to experience it, to be challenged and to become enlightened in a scant 90+ minutes of one of the best shows of 2018.
In a production that almost didn't happen - it was upended by college administrators' fear of the power of the words found in DeLappe's stunning script - The Wolves is a play about the evolution of a group of nine young women who find themselves together every Saturday morning for a soccer match at an indoor facility in some unspecified locale that could be in New York, California or even Tennessee (or any place in between), during which they reveal themselves and their lives in a no-holds-barred conversation that allows audiences an unfettered view of whatever happens to be on their minds at any given moment.
That conversation, as scintillating and as provocative as any you might imagine, ranges from the universal to the personal, from the political to the social, from the physical to the sexual. To put not too fine a point on it, DeLappe's The Wolves (which she began writing on her phone while on the subway - something that only adds to the play's theatrical bona fides) offers a heightened view of life that can be archly dramatic at one moment, scandalously funny at the next and, by turns, completely disarming and inspiring. DeLappe's dialogue is beautifully written and amazingly authentic - to the point you feel as if you are eavesdropping on the private conversations of a group of young women you've never met but whom you feel as if you know personally. It's an amazing and staggering work of art that everyone should see.
That The Wolves is now running at Nashville's iconic Darkhorse Theater defies both expectations and the efforts of administrators at Belmont University to put a stop to the production of a script filled with the frank and colorful language used by people young and old to describe their day-to-day existences in the world in which we live. And, last time I checked, teenagers are people, too, who have a command of the language in order to express themselves with candor, wit and honesty.
As someone who was upbraided a year ago by a high school teacher for allowing the use of such colorful language during an awards show I produce (and to whom I replied, "that's how people talk - and they are just words. You decide for yourself if they are profane or not. For me, they are just expressive"), it should come as no surprise that the language of The Wolves left be unfazed: it's not egregious, nor is its shocking or unwarranted. It's just life, motherfuckers, get over your puritanical upbringing and embrace the now (because if this sentence didn't kill you, nothing you will hear onstage will either).
The show's opening night was postponed when Belmont administrators pulled out of their years-long partnership with Actor's Bridge - which has seen the creation of some of Nashville's best-loved and most talked about productions over the years - to offer theater students at the university (with a history of financial support from the Tennessee Baptist Convention that started in the 1950s and which ended somewhat acrimoniously in 2007 after a protracted lawsuit) the opportunity to work with seasoned theater professionals, thus affording them the unique chance to learn and grow in a practical setting outside the classroom.
To her credit, when Actor's Bridge Ensemble producing artistic director Vali Forrister was presented with a demand to excise DeLappe's script of some of its language, she refused, steadfastly supporting the playwright and her 2017 Pulitzer Prize nominated play. Forrister's, and her widely respected company's, decision to present DeLappe's play as written - even at the risk of ending the partnership with Belmont - is as courageous and laudable as it was expected. Actor's Bridge has always pushed the envelope in order to give Nashville audiences works of contemporary currency in contrast to the old, dusty and oft-produced titles we far too often expect.
In retrospect, 2018 has been a banner year for Nashville theater, so it should surprise no individual reading this review that one of the year's most electrifying productions - the absorbingly frank and stunningly conceived The Wolves - has been saved for the final month of the year, offering an oasis of sorts in a desert filled with hoary holiday season titles that may seem a bit too precious and a tad more pedestrian in comparison. Though DeLappe's masterfully (my apologies for the misogyny inherent in that term) written play may well be one of the most unconventional scripts in the canon of contemporary works, she has crafted one a play of extraordinary power. The Wolves seems to exemplify a particular moment in time - this particular moment in time. Its structure is fluid and malleable in the way that real life is, but in the tradition of all things theatrical, The Wolves is so much more than what real life could ever be.
Truth be told, if schedules permitted, we'd be headed back to Darkhorse Theater for every performance of The Wolves still to come, to encounter DeLappe's richly conceived and expertly delineated characters again, to see all that we probably missed during our first heartrending time watching their stories unfold. To say we always will remember where we were on Friday, November 30, 2018, at 7:30 p.m. may seem like so much hyperbole, but in the cool clear morning of post-show retrospection, we remain as emotionally drained (yet, somehow, staggeringly invigorated) as we were when the curtain fell at 9:15 p.m., some 36 hours previous.
Make no mistake about it: Actor's Bridge Ensemble's The Wolves, now onstage at Darkhorse Theatre through December 8, is a searing and provocative play that's sure to leave you breathless and longing for more. The Wolves - which focuses on the lives of nine young women brought together to play on a team in an indoor soccer league - is presented in episodic fashion, the story of each young woman evolving in a process of exposition and discovery. It's as if DeLappe had set out to create some sort of intricately woven, brilliantly hued tapestry, with every fiber of the characters' existence apparent throughout. Even as the focus shifts and changes from one moment to the next, with one young woman receding into the background as another is brought to the forefront, with their dialogue overlapping and the subject matter of their brilliantly conveyed conversations developing along the way, The Wolves is storytelling at its finest, theater at its most compelling.
When you enter the Darkhorse, its transformation from an intimate space for the creation of theater to become the warm-up area for a group of nine young women who comprise the membership of an indoor soccer team is readily apparent. DeLappe allows her audience a bird's eye view, as it were, to watch the teammates warm up for their Saturday matches, making us privy to the conversations of the girls, which are illuminating and rather surprising. The subjects of their conversation cut a wide swath of issues and topics pertinent to the characters - from a passionate discourse on the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and the genocide that accompanied their brutal rule, to gossip about boyfriends and their hung-over coach, speculation about new team members (does #46 really live in a "yogurt"?) and one another's non-sports related activities, and back to the more banal but equally as eye-opening discussions of periods, tampons, eating disorders and social anxiety.
DeLappe's characters are whip-smart and direct and she creates a portrait of these fierce young women as independent people, each struggling to find her own place in the world while being empowered by the very sisterhood of athletic competition and a world evolving - however slowly and lumbering that may be - into a society that's fair, just and equitable and teeming with possibilities yet to come. Clearly, these young women live in a world vastly different from that in which their mothers grew up and seemingly light years beyond the experiences of their grandmothers. And men, who very likely may find themselves gobsmacked by what they witness, will hopefully be enlightened by what they learn.
The Wolves is a stunning theatrical experience that you will savor for months, if not years, to come, thanks to the efforts of director Jaclynn Jutting and her cast and crew. Witnessing the superb performances of the young actors who bring The Wolves to life with such intensity will leave you confident about the current state of affairs in local theater. Even as you consider the controversy of the show's production in Nashville, the power of DeLappe's play is stirringly sustained, its reputation enhanced by the theater vs. academia brouhaha that becomes an afterthought thanks to the play's impact.
You may be asking yourself "Is the subject matter of The Wolves really so controversial?" The answer is an unqualified "no," unless you've sequestered yourself away in a frozen-in-time ivory tower, suspended like so much fruit cocktail in the Jell-O mold of the mid-1950s, during which women were supposed to act a certain way, to speak a certain way and to refrain from exercising their own inalienable rights, sublimating and subverting their own thoughts and desires - and intelligence - in order to achieve a common good advanced by, and administered by, old white guys eager to maintain the status quo.
The impact of The Wolves is, at once, difficult to explain fully, yet amazingly simple, and while it would be far easier to just say: "Buy a ticket and see the show for yourself and report back to me with your own assessment" - so that I may just settle back with another cup of coffee to watch entertaining animals do all manner of mischief in online videos. Of course, seeing The Wolves for yourselves is exactly what you should do if you love theater, appreciate exceptional writing, are attracted to compelling characters and/or simply want to be transformed after a scant two hours spent in a darkened theater watching magic happen right in front of you.
My sense of duty won't allow me to take the easier approach to reviewing The Wolves, however, nor would I ever allow a theatrical experience of this power and (to be quite candid) beauty to pass by unremarked. My brain, after a day and a half, still overflows with a cacophony of words battling to find their way through my fingers onto a keyboard and, hence, to a screen within your grasp. My heart is fairly bursting with the minutiae of the smallest and most seemingly insignificant of moments I saw on opening night, and yet it pounds away thanks to the profundity of what I saw play out on the stage of Darkhorse Theater, where so many of the most involving and engaging theatrical productions of my career have transpired.
The Wolves is unique among all those shows, though, and the emotions engendered by the experience of having seen it are all too powerful, forcing me to urge you to see it for yourself. Jutting and her remarkable ensemble of actors are deserving of all the praise a critic (in particular, this one) can dish out in a review to convince you to take heed and see the show.
Chances are, you will feel exactly as I do. You'll leave the theater wondering how C.J. Tucker (identified by the moniker of "Soccer Mom" in the show's playbill) can deliver such a heartfelt and astonishing performance in such a short period of time. Her very presence in the play will startle you, your emotions bubbling up from beneath the surface in tribute to her beautifully etched, unerringly convincing portrayal.
You will probably ask yourself how the young actors playing The Wolves are able to remember everything expected of them: As the teammates warm up for their next match, drilling and stretching to prepare for battle on the soccer pitch, they are in constant motion. In an intricately staged and choreographed performance, they are nothing less than stunning and awe-inspiring. Jutting's nine-member cast, referred to by the numbers they wear on their jerseys, will impress you with their skillful performances and the strength of their focus and commitment.
DeLappe's decision to identify them by number and not by name allows them to evoke the sense of camaraderie that exemplifies being part of a team, yet she writes them with such eloquence and power that each young woman stands out as her own person, each uniquely driven and possessed of tremendous poise, stage presence and charm.
Lucy Buchanan leads the team as its captain, #25, commanding the pitch with the ease of a benevolent dictator, while Penelope Gerosa's #46, the newcomer to the team, ably captures the awkwardness of trying to fit into a group. Hayley Pellis, #13, is funny and sweet, outspoken and quick to react. Number 7, played by Rachel Mackall (who gets the best words to hurl at her teammates), suffers an injury which forces her to the sidelines during a particularly important match viewed by a scout from Texas A&M, while her friendship with #14, played by Anna Jenkins, hits a rocky patch due to an ill-fated ski trip which may have led to her on-field injury. Emily Peterson, #00, plays her character close to the vest, indicative of her crippling shyness and social anxiety, while Tea Sherrill, #8, rails against the possibility of having to travel to Tulsa for nationals instead of the longed-for trip to Miami she's anticipated. Sammi Gainer's #2 and Riley Walker's #11 complete the team's roster, creating indelible characterizations as the team coalesces around their shared love of sport and the thrill of athletic competition, only to be tested by a late-in-the-game tragedy that sends them (and their audience) reeling.
You won't want to leave your seat after the cast take their justifiably rewarded curtain call; instead you'll want stay in order to experience more of the unparalleled power of live theater to transport you to another world, to transform your very person by its unique relevance, the ability of art to change your view and to alter your way of thinking. You will be awestruck by director Jutting's supremely confident interpretation of DeLappe's script, and you will want to revel in the exquisite performances of her actors who will, for lack of a better term, blow you away. You won't be able to stop thinking about The Wolves long after the lights are turned off and the door is locked, even while you remain captivated and intrigued by what you've just witnessed.
Once you are home, you will scour your playbill to commit the names of the actors to memory so that you may follow the trajectory of their careers still to come. Making their auspicious Darkhorse Theater debuts in a play that could have been written expressly for this coterie of exceptional talents, the young actors' powerful performances, both individually and collectively, and the sublime but deceptively simple design of the piece - make no mistake about it, every element ensures the consummate live theater experience, from costumes (designed by Andy Garland) to lighting (by Aaron Braun of Ardee Design Group), from sound (Emilia Adams' efforts are truly extraordinary) to sets (Kandler Oldham's Astro-turf transforms the space) and everything essential to creating a world all its own that nonetheless evokes the heightened reality of The Wolves - will prompt you to wonder why everything can't be this satisfying, this special.
For the love of God, go see The Wolves. You'll be amazed.
The Wolves. By Sarah DeLappe. Directed by Jaclynn Jutting. Produced by Vali Forrister and Rachel Agee. Presented by Actor's Bridge Ensemble at Darkhorse Theater, 4610 Charlotte Avenue, Nashville. Through December 8. For details and tickets, go to www.actorsbridge.org. Running time: 95 minutes (with no intermission).
Cast photo by Rick Malkin