‘The Wolves’ at Goodman Theatre (Photo: Liz Lauren)
By Becky Sarwate
Sometimes a fantastic piece of art is offered at the perfect cultural moment for receiving its honesty, and it amplifies a work that would still be effective in a vacuum. Such is the case with Goodman Theatre’s Chicago premiere of The Wolves from playwright Sarah DeLappe.
#MeToo meets the empowered social consciousness of Generation Z in this 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist. DeLappe’s work introduces a number of twists to bring freshness to the teen girl coming-of-age comedy-drama. For one, all of the onstage action occurs on a truncated soccer field. Scenic design veteran Collette Pollard, a regular Goodman contributor, should clear space on her mantel come awards season. By the end of the performance, I was ready to fold my program into a Jeff Award and hand it to her. It’s hard to overstate how well the creative team as a whole executes DeLappe’s vision.
The dynamic and diverse cast of 10 young women who make up the players and supporters of a fictional soccer club do so much more than provide an audience with real, accessible and imperfect characters. The Wolves is a literal exercise in personal growth. For 90 minutes, these girls grapple with issues as complex and relevant as racism, eating disorders, death, sexual discovery, menstruation, gender dynamics and more – all while doing calisthenics. It’s like watching old Michael Jackson concert footage – how could he continue singing full-throated AND dance that way?
The athletic cast’s authenticity is the result of pre-production work with soccer skill-building coach Katie Berkopec. Per press materials, “each actor learned a series of real soccer drills and incorporated synchronized warm-ups…in preparation for their role.” The result is a live Bend It Like Beckham meets Little Women for the 21st Century. The emotional and physical stamina challenges presented by the material cannot be met without serious commitment. Director Vanessa Stalling and her crew are all in.
Known only by the numbers on their jerseys and their positions on the field (rather pointedly divorcing identity from our culture’s preoccupation with gender norms), the players bring the outside world and their experiences in it to the arena. The narrative unfolds through a series of pre- and post-game conversations (sometimes several at once) that roll across a high school soccer season. Thus the production also asks audience members to multi-task. We are spectators of sport, as well as eavesdroppers.
At a cultural moment when our President and other high-profile men accused of sexual harassment have turned “locker room talk” into a cover for misogynist license, it is refreshing to see a female playwright, cast and crew offer a different vision: one where women can defy conventions, speaking freely and coarsely about their bodies, ambitions, quirks of character and pain.
DeLappe gives her young women depth. The opening scene involves an informed and passionate argument about the Khmer Rouge, and it’s funny. On paper, that seems impossible. Equally impossible, at least if you follow the conventional rules of male-produced Hollywood films, is the absence of romantic rivalry in moving the plot. Boys are present in some of these conversations, but the world of The Wolves does not revolve around them.
The concept of teen girls as fully realized, three-dimensional human beings should not be unique storytelling. The Wolves crystallizes the disservice that stunted depictions of adolescence offer our popular culture and the young women who consume so much of it. In addition to its rightful place in the modern literature cannon (conferred by the 2017 Pulitzer nomination), as a supplement to the energy driven by its competitive sports themes, the script is an encouraging act of revolution.
Running an hour and a half with no intermission, the pace of The Wolves moves as quickly as the swift feet of its cast. Throughout the opening night performance, audience members seated in the round (reinforcing the production’s stadium aesthetic) cheered, stomped feet and rode the emotional waves that accompany winning, losing and growing up. DeLappe’s material is truly original and deserves to be experienced widely.
170 N Dearborn St., Chicago, IL
Through March 11
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic and blogger. On March 29, 2018, her first book, Cubsessions – Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, will be published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.