Friday, October 13, 2017

CT Theater Review: The Wolves -- TheaterWorks

Scene from The Wolves. Photo: Lanny Nagler

The Wolves
By Sarah DeLappe
Directed by Eric Ort
TheaterWorks
EXTENDED THROUGH NOV. 12

By Lauren Yarger
If you've ever thought that a group of teenage girls seems like a pack of wolves, you might be on to something there.

High school juniors who are members of the indoor Soccer Team The Wolves getting a run at TheaterWorksspend a lot of time practicing drills in the hopes of going to nationals or getting a scholarship to play for a top college team. They spend even more time putting people down (but demanding political correctness from each other while they do it) and lamenting the sad state of their parents. You know, having conversations that are typical of most teen girls in suburban America today....

What's atypical in Sarah DeLappe's outstanding debut drama, which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, however, are the compelling character studies the playwright nets in just over 90 minutes with no intermission. Dribbling the ball through the field of expected concerns and emotions of 17-year-old competitive girls, DeLappe sneaks by defenses and presents an unexpected kick: another side to the story. These girls are on the cusp of womanhood, and feel pressure to act like adults, but they are really just steps away from childhood and aren't quite sure how to deal with the confusion (one teammate gushes over the thought of a possible trip to Disney World.) They all wear the same uniform (Costume Design by Blair Gulledge) and they deal with the force of needing to belong and to be accepted, but they also need to discover who they will become individually and find a way to break from the pack.

The teammates are all stereotypes in a way, but each becomes distinctive and after a few minutes, you won't need jersey numbers (which is how they are identified in the program) to tell them apart:
Rachel Caplan (Armenian #14),  Carolyn Cutillo (anorexic #2), Karla Gallegos (goalie #00 who throws up before every match), Déa Julien (pothead #13), Shannon Keegan (the smart one  #11), Emily Murphy (captain/rule enforcer #25), Claire Saunders (childlike #8), Caitlin Zoz (the new girl #46) and Olivia Hoffman (the star who will be sidelined with an injury #7).

At the start of the game -- the game of life in a suburb as seen through the eyes of teen girls, that is -- the girls gossip about the things that are important to them: where the nationals will be held, who had an abortion, whether a person who has committed genocide should be executed, who has the hottest mom. . .  A newcomer, #46, who has never played on a soccer team before, shows amazing skill. She is a source of puzzlement for the girls who are jealous of her soccer prowess, but who mock her home-school existence which includes living in a yurt with her weird mom....  

When tragedy strikes, the bubble of the girls' fairly privileged existence is burst by the need to deal with real loss and suffering.  The teammates find they don't have all the answers. Phrasing things in a politically-correct way won't help here. Even one of the soccer moms (Megan Byrne) is at a loss to help, but the girls find strength in themselves and in each other to continue on.  The performances score a goal, as the girls go through their paces doing thrusts, squats and passing exercises all while reflecting on life as they see if from Mariana Sanchez's simple set of sloping  AstroTurf. It's a different kind of theater and an extraordinary first work by a playwright.

Director Eric Ort fails to capture the essence of the female universe in the first crucial 10 minutes, however, leaving many wondering what this play is about or what the plot might be (many still seemed to have questions on the way out of the theater, unfortunately.) The opening needs to be tighter and sharper to allow the overlapping, brisk dialogue to carve out precise character and momentum instead of sounding like a bunch of silly chatter. To be honest, it feels he's trying to figure out what he's dealing with here -- a guy trying to navigate the world of female brains in rapid fire. Later he skillfully finds his footing and leads the girls through their pre-game routines (with help from soccer advisor Lexi Menard) and staging that makes sure our eye stays on the ball -- that is to say, where our focus should be directed -- so we can field the next conflict or complex emotion.

This play caused such a sensation Off-Broadway last season (it was nominated for the Lucille Lortel and Drama League awards for Best Play, and for the Outer Critics’ Circle John Gassner Award for Outstanding New American Play) that it is getting another run at Lincoln Center next month featuring a number of the original cast members. Lila Lila Neugebauer, who helmed the Playwrights Realm production, will return to direct.

The Wolves pack together through Nov. 5 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances at Tuesday, wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Weekend matinees at 2:30 pm. Weekday matinees added Oct. 18, 25 and Nov. 1. Tickets are $55-$70: theaterworkshartford.org.


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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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