Review: ‘The Wolves’ scores at Salt Lake Acting Company

Cast of Salt Lake Acting Company’s "The Wolves." Photo Courtesy: dav.d daniels/ dav.d photography

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Oct. 17, 2018 (Gephardt Daily) — Before you embark on a viewing of Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves” at Salt Lake Acting Company, you should know that the show is, in a way, a bit of a choose your own adventure.

Set on an indoor soccer field, the play, DeLappe’s first, chronicles the warm-up sessions of a teenage girls’ soccer team, with all the physical, mental, and emotional waves that come along with being a young female athlete.

As the lights come up, the nine members of the team are warming up in a circle, facing inward, chatting to one another rapid fire. The dialogue overlaps and the conversation bounces around such diverse topics as sanitary pads and menstrual cycles, getting blood on the soccer ball, the coach’s terrible hangover, Harry Potter, the other team’s hideous yellow uniforms and, somewhat randomly, the Khmer Rouge, and how you pronounce it.

For a few minutes, it made me slightly nervous that I couldn’t follow every single thing that was said, but after I few minutes, I realized that that is how some parts of the play — a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama — are deliberately written.

Adding to the slightly chaotic feel is that each player has a number rather than a name so initially, I was also trying to figure out who was who. Within about the first 15 minutes, one becomes able to easily differentiate the characters, and as the play goes on, DeLappe navigates us expertly forward.

There are numerous scenes that feature only one of two of the girls, where DeLappe clearly wants to communicate a particular plotline or allow us to learn more about a character with no distractions.

In other scenes, the team warms up in pairs or alone, and this was where the choose your own adventure feeling was evident; unlike in most conventional narratives, the audience is given permission to choose who they want to watch and what they want to listen to, so it’s almost like we’re eavesdropping rather than being hit over the head with the storyline. For example, in one scene, I missed most of the dialogue, because I was mesmerized by the virtually silent scene unfolding at the back of the stage as #25, the Captain (Madi Cooper), and #00, the goalie (Ireland Nichols), undertake repetitive drills. It’s a stunning vignette, that has a certain spirituality to it, almost like one is watching a martial art.

However, many of the scenes feature all the players. Director Alexandra Harbold and soccer consultant Joe Murray (who has played soccer since he was 7) evidently worked closely together so these scenes feel like one is watching a finely choreographed ballet, or a symphony.

Some of my favorite segments were those where the girls all did drills together, as these were truly beautiful to watch. It’s worth mentioning that for nine weeks before rehearsals started, the cast did soccer practice with Murray every Saturday — and these young women have mad skills. These are the scenes that help us see that while verbally the team skips about all over the place, physically, they function as one strong unit. That also begs the question — if you were to remove one of the players from the equation, what would happen?

As we get to know the characters better, secrets are revealed and then suddenly there’s a  twist that suddenly hurtles the show in a darker direction.

A new character is introduced; “Soccer Mom” played by Tracie Merrill, who in a sense represents the outside world entering the players safe, isolated cocoon. Which brings me to the performances. I honestly can say there is not a weak link in the show, and it’s quite the feat to find nine young women who can portray teens but also have the acting chops to carry the show AND can play soccer. And while I won’t pick any standouts among the girls, I will say, they all have the chops of wolves. And Merrill, though she’s on stage for only a few minutes, gives a nuanced, understated, heartbreaking performance that left me with tears streaming down my face. You can’t always tell when you see a finished play whether the rehearsal and performance process has been a joyful one, but in this case, there is a huge amount of synergy and positive energy that emanates from the stage, and because the piece depicts a close-knit team, that works extremely well.

The production elements are also gorgeous. They’re all rather simple, and never upstage the performances. The set (by Erik Reichert) is a sea of zingy green AstroTurf that curves up artfully at the back of the stage then also extends to the left and right of the audience, where many of the team’s entrances and exits occur. The player’s kit (costuming is by Kerstin Davis) is a bold scarlet, a perfect contrast to the green. Davis also effectively differentiates the girls’ personalities with small touches like the Captain’s armband for #25, cute hair bows on #8 and the lime green goalie uniform of #00. The lighting design by William Peterson is gentle and effective and Jennifer Jackson’s sound design highlights female artists that echo the play’s message of girl power.

And that is where “The Wolves” truly shines, as a piece of theater with 10 women, written by a woman, directed by a woman, with the message that in union is strength. The girls have a great deal to say, and unusually, very little of it is about men, relationships and sexuality. It’s a lot more about their identities as powerful young women, and more importantly, who they are as a unit and a team.

DeLappe has said in an interview: “I wanted to see a portrait of teenage girls as human beings -– as complicated, nuanced, very idiosyncratic people who weren’t just girlfriends or sex objects or manic pixie dream girls but who were athletes and daughters and students and scholars and people who were trying actively to figure out who they were in this changing world around them.” She went  on to say: “I didn’t intend to rewrite the way we think about women onstage, but I won’t apologize for any of it.” As indeed she should not.

“The Wolves” runs though Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Additional performances are Oct. 20 at 2 p.m., Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $44, available by phone at 801-363-7522, or online here. SLAC is at 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.


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