Review: “The Wolves”

The Pulitzer-nominated play about a nine-girl soccer team shows how we can leave conventional playwriting behind

Michelle de Joya (#11) with Wolves teammates/Photo by Dan Norman

This review was originally published following the premiere of the original staging of The Wolves at Jungle Theater last spring. The same cast, with the same set and direction, returns January 31 through February 17, this time at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

Watching nine girls kick a soccer ball around—arguing, gossiping, and posing philosophical questions at the same time—you forget about the title of Pulitzer-nominated play The Wolves.

But then they form a pre-game huddle. Dressed in maroon uniforms, the teammates drape their arms around shoulders and hips. They bob in unison, chanting, “We. Are. The wolves—we are the wolves.” And it clicks—the reason a carnivore romanticized for splitting from the pack gets symbolic treatment over the course of the 90-minute play.

For one, there’s the ferocity. This all-women show, following the inner social dynamics of a high-school soccer team, debuted in New York two years ago to critical acclaim for staging raw, unsanitized girlhood. Jungle Theater artistic director Sarah Rasmussen lobbied hard to bring The Wolves to Minneapolis, and the compelling, high-energy result had a successful run last spring. Now, the show returns, featuring the same cast and set but staged at the Southern Theater.

Debut playwright Sarah DeLappe focuses on sketching personalities over six scenes, so there’s no convenient three-act setup. Instead, we pursue the girls’ splintering conversations. They indecorously span topics—from internet censorship to menstrual cycles, from their punk-styled classmate to their coach’s drinking problem, from their weightless opinions on Cambodian genocide to American civil liberties. Stakes do surface, as does foreshadowing of a few characters’ reckonings. But DeLappe hides these hints within the play’s biggest draw: the naturalistic, overlapping, scattershot dialogue.

It owes partly to a unique premise, for how often do we see girls depicted without male foils, engaged in a rough sport? On a bright-green stage that evokes the turf of an indoor soccer field, they stretch, practice, eat orange slices, and butt heads before games—because, in a Breakfast Club effect, soccer has wrangled girls of varying social skills. We get the sense some might otherwise ignore, if not actively avoid, one another. It’s the field—far enough removed from eavesdropping peers and adults—that grants reprieve from their more-public teen selves.

The stage rears up, like a halfpipe, to form its own backdrop, meaning the set offers no horizon and the girls exist on a kind of dimensionless plane. Darting soccer balls—some of very few props—visualize the fiery, friendly neuro-activity of their informal Socratic seminars, usually regarding more-consequential affairs offstage.

Star LaBlanc (#00) and Chloe Armao (#14)/Photo by Dan Norman

Rasmussen, in an emotional pre-show address to the audience, compared the girls’ insularity to that of the actors. Beyond the play, these women more often compete for roles. Here, too, critics have commended DeLappe for subverting archetypes and rounding out each character, so no one stands out as the star.

This makes singling out performances tough. But, as player #13 (a class-clown type), actor McKenna Kelly-Eiding delivers goofball lines without winking or mugging. She conveys a deeper layer—a kind of boredom or insecurity that the character masks. Each actor, in fact, exudes a fraught inner life. They embody young, nuanced histories along with clashing maturity levels. Player #7 (Becca Hart) moves with fluid confidence, sharp, assertive, at the top of the food chain, and yet, we can tell, unhappy. In contrast, #46 (Megan Burns) moves with a becoming unselfconsciousness, the quirky, buoyant girl from out of town, the well-traveled member of the team who nonetheless struggles the most with what the others consider common sense. At points, she fails to discern what’s appropriate and inappropriate. When #46 and #7 collide, it is between self-contained worlds.

Those differences make the girls’ bond more affecting. We sense trouble when they hold back, hide prickly truths, or retreat to cliques. Speaking openly, they embarrass themselves, tread over past trauma, and argue about the “R” word—but never lose our sympathy.

During a tense moment near the end of the show (at the point that most closely resembles conventional playwriting), an outsider impinges on their circle and winds up reminding us of the common struggle that unites them: Adults so often groom girls’ speech, plucking “like”s from their sentences and ironing out cadences to not curl in Valley Girl style. On the field, that self-awareness stymies goofiness, honesty, open-mindedness.

Rasmussen’s bid for DeLappe’s work furthers her mission to stage three-dimensional female roles, and The Wolves, in this final, highly effective scene, addresses questions of girl-ness head-on. Otherwise, though, the play concerns a group of girls less than it does a group of individuals. They face their own problems, albeit shoulder-to-shoulder.

One of the most tantalizing aspects of The Wolves is that you can follow one character from start to finish—she and the others chiming in and talking over—for a different experience than if you had locked your attention on someone else (a consequence of the “no star script). Dialogue evens out toward the end, and as the girls listen more, each reaches her own conclusion. They don’t find resolutions; life isn’t so neat. They just conclude, in different places, although somehow as a team.

The Wolves
The Southern Theater
1420 S. Washington Ave., Minneapolis
January 31-February 17

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