A High School Women’s Soccer Team Trades Kicks, Banter in “The Wolves”; McCarter Opens its Season with High-Energy Production of a Lively Drama
“THE WOLVES”: Performances are underway for “The Wolves.” Produced by McCarter Theatre, and directed by Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, the play runs through October 16 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Above, from left: Teammates 8 (Maggie Thompson), 14 (Isabel Pask), 7 (Jasmine Sharma, 25 (Mikey Gray), 46 (Maria Habeeb), 00 (Renea S. Brown), 2 (Katie Griffith), 11 (Owen Laheen), and 13 (Annie Fox) discuss current events while they practice soccer. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter is opening its season with The Wolves. The 2016 drama depicts a high school women’s soccer team, whose diverse members discuss current news events — among other, sometimes lighter subjects — as they practice for their games. The Wolves was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama.
Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen directs the spirited production. Although this marks the McCarter debut of The Wolves, Rasmussen has prior experience staging the play. Her 2019 production at the Jungle Theater earned her a Minnesota Theater Award for Exceptional Performative Direction.
While writing The Wolves, Sarah DeLappe (who played soccer from ages 8 to 14) was tutoring teenage girls. An exhibit in the McCarter lobby quotes her as saying, “I felt very close to the current experience of female adolescence.” In a 2017 Lincoln Center Theater interview that is excerpted in McCarter’s printed program, DeLappe explains that she conceived the play “as a war movie. But instead of a bunch of men who are going into battle, you have a bunch of young women who are preparing for their soccer games.”
Scenic Designer Junghyun Georgia Lee covers the brightly lit Berlind stage with green Astroturf, honoring DeLappe’s opening stage direction that describes an indoor “soccer field that feels like it goes on forever.” The background is white and gray, but this is deceptive; Jackie Fox’s lighting often adds splashes of color.
As The Wolves begins, the lighting moves in rhythm to contemporary pop music procured by Sound Designer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca. As the soccer players enter, they are dancing as though they are in a nightclub. Immediately we know that the play will be infused with youthful energy.
As the teammates stretch or practice their moves, they engage in impassioned — but, to most of them, comfortably abstract — discussions about world events, such as a Cambodian Khmer Rouge war criminal being brought to justice. While the players kick soccer balls between them, they also exchange banter. As they prepare to compete against opposing teams, they also are preparing to face the world around them — and to confront a tragedy closer to home.
In the beginning we hear several conversations going on at once. On one wall of the McCarter lobby is an enlarged page of DeLappe’s script, enabling us to see how the playwright has arranged these simultaneous passages of dialogue into columns, which Rasmussen has likened to an orchestral score. The resulting cacophony accomplishes the playwright’s desired effect of letting us be a “fly on the wall.”
For most of the show, the players are identified solely by their team numbers (it is only later that we hear any first names). Even the lone onstage adult is known only by the identity given to her by the game: Soccer Mom.
Raquel Adorno’s costumes support the concept of the players’ personal identities emerging from their identity as members of a soccer team. Initially, we see all of the players wearing the same colorful uniforms.
At an early juncture the Goalie, #00 (played by Renea S. Brown) exits, and remerges wearing a purple outfit. Beyond the confines of the uniforms, personal styles are suggested by headwear, as well as the scarves that #2 (Katie Griffith) is knitting, to raise money for Amnesty International.
Over the course of several weekends, we see the team confront internal tensions, misunderstandings, and rivalries, even as they unite (and cheer, “We are the Wolves!”) to challenge their opponents.
The drill sergeant-like Captain, #25, is determined to see the team win at any cost — at one point attempting to save time by omitting the usual stretching routine, jeopardizing the players’ safety (and causing a certain team member to be injured). As #25, Mikey Gray strides purposefully around the stage, authoritatively flinging a bag of soccer balls onto the ground.
The newest player, #46 (Maria Habeeb) is homeschooled, and new to the area. She lives with her mother in a yurt; #2 causes tension by substituting the malapropism “yogurt.” #46 attempts to brush this aside by putting exaggerated energy into her soccer practice (while chanting, “I live in a yogurt. My feelings don’t get hurt”). This sequence affords Habeeb the opportunity to perform some entertaining moves with a ball.
#46 is frustrated at being on the bench, and expresses keen interest in the Striker position. However, the acerbic #7 (Jasmine Sharma) has always been the Striker; with the team facing the upcoming college showcase tournament, #25 is reluctant to tamper with success.
Other team members include #8 (Maggie Thompson), who loves The Lord of the Rings; the morbid #11 (Owen Laheen); #13 (Annie Fox), whose brother deals drugs from their basement; and #14, who has a complicated friendship with #7. (At the September 23 performance, Isabel Rodriguez played #14, filling in for Isabel Pask.)
Brown also is outstanding in a sequence in which #00 reacts to devastating news that affects the entire team. The peppy beginnings of earlier scenes resemble a nightclub, whereas this segment is impassioned, and Brown’s movements are almost balletic. The musical language, and the lighting, change to match the somber mood.
The team generally exists in a bubble. Adults (such as the Wolves’ useless coach, and a college talent scout) are discussed but never appear onstage. An exception is Soccer Mom (Katharine Powell), who enters to give the team a good-natured but rambling pep talk. Taken aback by this monologue, the players are silent, in marked contrast with their chatter in earlier scenes.
Powell pairs the delivery of her speech with body language that suggests that Soccer Mom has too many thoughts running through her head at once, fighting each other to be articulated. Soccer Mom does not have much stage time, but Powell makes every moment count.
This writer attended a “Director’s Cut,” at which a scene was rehearsed in front of an audience. What stood out then was the extent to which the actors make the most of what Rasmussen refers to as “counterpoint” between their movements and the dialogue. I wrote, “Dialogue often is punctuated by a well-placed kick or stop of a ball. Rasmussen likens the script to a musical score; the kicks add a percussive effect that accents the conversations.” That remains true.
But witnessing the “Director’s Cut” did not fully prepare audiences to expect the high level of energy the actors — who often seem to be in perpetual motion — exhibit throughout the performance. Nor did the rehearsal reveal that Rasmussen, working with the all-female design team, has given the production the showy, expressive aura of a dance piece.
Two divergent comments can be made about this production aesthetic. The first is that it unquestionably succeeds in drawing the audience into the play’s world and energy. The second is that, initially, it seems slightly at odds with the slice-of-life realism that DeLappe is determined to simulate with the layers of dialogue.
Nevertheless, The Wolves makes me recall a remark by one of my theater professors, who suggested that a sporting event constitutes a theatrical one. Examining the production choices on a thematic level, perhaps Rasmussen is observing the inherent theatricality of soccer (or any sport) and its participants. Reality TV, websites, and social media can add flair to any everyday event — including soccer practice. Our culture routinely blends reality with a theatrical gloss.
In a 2020 interview for Princeton Magazine (a sister publication of Town Topics), Rasmussen remarks, “It’s so simple, but it’s also powerful to tell stories with intergenerational characters and scenarios.” With The Wolves Rasmussen demonstrates this; from the cast and designers she elicits a vibrant production of a lively, moving play.
Directed by Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, “The Wolves” runs through October 16 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. McCarter’s website notes that parental discretion is advised for strong language and themes; the play is recommended for ages 12 and up. For tickets or additional information, visit mccarter.org.