A teenage girls’ indoor soccer team may seem like an unlikely subject for a play, but that is exactly the focus of “The Wolves,” Actors Theatre of Louisville’s kickoff to the 2020 portion of its season. Written by Sarah DeLappe, “The Wolves” was a 2017 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh’s staging wisely ensures that the content is as fresh and relevant as ever.
The Pulitzer website says the drama prize is for a play by an American author, original in its source, and dealing with American life. This mindset is essential to the cogent appreciation of this play as, if nothing else, “The Wolves” is a microcosm of American society condensed into an unassuming package.
As soon as one walks in, the sharp angles and arena-style seating of the Bingham Theatre force the audience to look down on the proceedings below, encouraging a perspective both reminiscent of what one might see at such a soccer game, and appropriately detached from the social drama on stage. Scenic Designer Yoon Bae utilizes these attributes well and creates an uncanny field of regulation turf for the actors.
Presented with no intermission, “The Wolves” has an almost episodic structure, the majority of scenes taking place while warming up for the next big game. DeLappe dazzles as a playwright with the fully realized world and economy of her script. Each time a character reveals something about herself or another character, it’s like a nascent neuron firing for the first time: immediately exciting while also making sense as part of a whole.
DeLappe names the characters according to their jersey numbers (with one powerful exception to this rule near the play’s end) and at the top of the play, they are a well-oiled machine, stretching in unison with all the precision of a piston engine. Movement Director Rocío Mendez works with Yousefzadeh and a team consisting of Movement Captain Angela Alise, Movement Associate Alex Might, Soccer Coach Sophia Traub and even Physical Therapist Kevin Brown to create a believable physical vocabulary for the actors. The results confirm the hard work that was obviously put in. The actors display convincing feats of athleticism, and their movements afford the production a sort of punctuation that serves to move from topic to topic in the dialogue or even scene to scene.
And there are topics aplenty, from Cambodian dictators to boyfriends, and even their absentee coach’s drinking habit. The dialogue has a Mametesque quality that absolutely works for a group of teenagers who spend a great deal of time together. Characters talk over one another as new ideas enter their brains, old inside jokes erupt without preamble just as new ones are being formed. Typical of middle class, American, high-achieving youth, these characters are all juggling a million potential fragments of an adulthood they yearn for. The pace is such that the audience experiences the thrill when those yearnings come true — and the pain when they fall short.
Without names to grab onto, it’s necessary to focus on character facts or details instead. There’s a character who is dealing with her budding gay identity, one who is sweet-natured and struggling with an eating disorder, and another who lives in a yurt and takes three buses to get to practices and games. DeLappe creates a world that isn’t about any of these individual issues but rather allows those issues to inhabit it. It’s impossible to pick a stand-out performer as each and every one of them is integral to the play’s architecture.
The time we spent getting to know and care about the characters in “The Wolves” eventually pays off with a tragic but powerful ending.
“The Wolves” runs through February 1 at Actors Theatre of Louisville.