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Offering a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the private world of a suburban girls’ indoor soccer team, Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves (★★★★★) dives into the high-pressure depths of nine teammates, dropping in on private conversations as they prep for matches. Conversations sound real, not written, yet paradoxically ring with the harmony and insight of the playwright’s assured ear for dialogue.
The performances in Studio’s sharp-as-nails production, directed by Marti Lyons, feel fresh and natural, even though it’s perfectly clear the ensemble has drilled hard to synchronize the rhythms of their soccer warm-ups and teen angst-filled drama. To their credit, no one drops the ball.
The Wolves are in the midst of an undefeated season, when the arrival of a new teammate, #46 (Jane Bernhard), threatens to upset the team’s momentum. The new girl’s self-conscious attempts to assimilate into the pack send subtle waves of discord rippling through the tight-knit friendships. And her prowess on the field could sideline the team’s alpha player, team striker, #7 (Katie Kleiger).
Of course, wolf pack metaphors are easily applied, and the team’s diverse roster allows for the inclusion of girls to represent the voices and identities of myriad types of teenager. But the story overcomes that sense of calculation, taking intriguing shape as the team’s season progresses from Saturday to Saturday.
One player suffers her fifth or sixth concussion, a cold gets passed around like bad gossip, they all make jibes at their drunkard coach Neil, secrets are shared and spilled, and the team continues to fight hard on the field.
How much any of it relates to what it truly feels like to be a girl right now might be difficult to measure — the play’s explorations of loyalty, envy, competition, conformity, and other aspects of life not exclusive to 16-year old female soccer players feel true enough. The girls trade jokes, insults, wisdom and comfort, with each performer afforded a moment to shine solo as well as in concert with the connected cast. Bernhard and Kleiger distinguish themselves as the team’s two polar opposites, the shy outcast and the cocky striker, both baring steely strength in their roles, as does Maryn Shaw, wonderfully expressive as eager #14.
While the entire cast gets to play DeLappe’s fast-paced comic repartee, Shanta Parasuraman as #8 and Sara Turner as #13 are especially reliable delivering their punchlines. They’re just as affecting when the tone turns dark, and a heartrending loss causes each girl to reassess her spot on the team.
Although the play’s shift to somber isn’t unexpected, it still reveals surprising turns of emotion and action in the characters. In particular, a scene late in the play provides Gabby Beans, as #00, the team’s goalie, a remarkable moment as she builds and releases pressure so intense it’s shocking she could even contain it.
Such is the power of DeLappe’s play, currently enjoying a season in which nearly two dozen productions of The Wolves have hit stages nationwide. First, with barbs flying fast and fierce, the play is damn funny. Second, these girls reflect the way so many in the world right now, regardless of age, feel especially sensitive to every tiny ripple that might upset them, and wary of any explosion that could destroy them.
For athletes this committed, there’s little time to enjoy the spoils of victory because there’s always more work to be done in order to stay on top. Fear and anxiety, as much as desire and determination, motivate all they say and do. And so much of what happens to them they cannot control at all. So, they bite at each other, sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes with savage intent, and they jostle for power — or bond, and try to teach each other. The play and its cast convey a world of warmth whenever the players turn to nurturing their pack to achieve common goals.
The Wolves explores a fascinating microcosm of an America that’s used to winning, always plays to win, and yet still must learn how to sometimes handle the taste of defeat. It’s that rare theatrical experience that grants an audience the guilty thrill of eavesdropping on the intimate moments of strangers.
The Wolves runs to March 11, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $85. Call 202-332-3300, or visit studiotheatre.org.
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