“The Wolves”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre, Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through March 18
Tickets: $10-$47
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves” is a fascinating study in group dynamics rather than a conventional play. A 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist, the 90-minute piece takes us to a suburban girls soccer team’s pregame workouts as the nine teenage players negotiate their ever-shifting relationships while discussing life’s big and little questions.

The Goodman’s Owen Theatre has been effectively transformed into an indoor soccer practice field (adjacent to the unseen playing field) for the Chicago premiere, with set design by Collette Pollard, lighting by Keith Parham, costumes by Noël Huntzinger, and sound and original music by Mikhail Fiksel. The audience sits on all four sides, protected from flying balls by tall nets. This also distances us from the actors, so we’re as much like eavesdroppers on private conversations as like soccer fans before the game.

Getting into the flow requires some effort on our part, because the rapid-fire dialogue often is overlapping, and the girls are in almost constant motion as they energetically perform synchronized warmups including squats, jumping jacks, quads, butterfly, and more moves mastered with the help of soccer skill-building coach Katie Berkopec. At the same time, under the direction of Vanessa Stalling, they talk about subjects as diverse as the Khmer Rouge (and how to pronounce it), feminine hygiene, Latin American kids in cages, yurts, boyfriends, coaches, recruiters, abortion versus Plan B, the future and, of course, soccer and winning. DeLappe, only 26 when she wrote the play, perfectly captures the tones and rhythms, and Stalling and the cast bring the jumble of ideas and thoughts to life, as they pour out with little attention to relative importance.

The characters are identified only by uniform number, not name, but what I find most interesting is the way they emerge as individuals. The playwright provides just enough information to give each a distinctive back story, while also showing how they gradually coalesce as a group. There isn’t much of a plot; it’s just a picture of ups and downs punctuated by a couple of important incidents, one of which brings the only adult, a Soccer Mom (Meighan Gerachis), to the field for an awkward interlude.
While the actors are uniformly excellent, easiest to single out at first glance is #00 (Angela Alise), the goalie. She’s the only black player (something that’s not explained) and frequently runs offstage to vomit (something that is, and it is not because she’s pregnant). She also doesn’t speak through at least half of the evening but eventually finds her voice. Team captain is #25 (Isa Arciniegas), who has to be both bossy and supportive and, surprisingly, comes to terms with her own sexuality.

The new girl on the team, and to the area, is #46 (Erin O’Shea), who doesn’t seem to quite speak the same language as the others—she calls soccer “football”–and has traveled everywhere the others mention. Her worldiness and skill at soccer cause gossip and tension, at least until the team members find out the reasons. Others include #7 (Natalie Joyce), the sexually experienced foul-mouthed star who suffers a setback; #14 (Aurora Real de Asua), the best friend with whom #7 has a big falling-out; #2 (Taylor Blim), a quiet girl with a secret eating disorder; loud #13 (Mary Tilden), know-it-all #11 (Sarah Price), and not-the-smartest #8 (Cydney Moody), who is seriously bummed out when she learns the nationals are going to be in Tulsa rather than Miami.

Much has been made of the fact that “The Wolves” is a rare play about young women in sports functioning perfectly well without men. It’s also heartening to think that, if the female pack mentality can be channeled so constructively, the future is in good hands.