Where: The Gift Theatre,
4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through Aug. 18
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The Chicago premiere of Hansol Jung’s “Wolf Play” at The Gift Theatre is simultaneously hopeful and heart breaking. Sensitively directed by Jess McLeod, it also makes surprising use of the small stage, thanks to the inventive scenic design by Arnel Sanciano that puts household furnishings on a vertical plane and washes everything in silvery blue-gray paint.
Credit for the drama’s emotional impact goes mostly to actor Dan Lin and a small puppet designed by Stephanie Diaz. Lin plays Wolf, who functions as the narrator of the story and also is the inner voice of an eight-year-old Korean boy named Jeenu portrayed by the puppet, whose permanently pained look is remarkably expressive.
Lin is remarkably expressive, too, and his physicality, skill at puppetry, and double role combine to imbue his account with humor, insight, attitude, and a whole lot more as he describes the behavior of wolves both alone and in packs, as well as the adults in his life.
These humans start with Peter (Tim Martin), who had adopted the boy he calls Pete. But then he and his wife Katie had a baby of their own and, deciding they couldn’t handle two (“Katie hates wolves,” Wolf tells us), turned to the internet to find a new home for the adoptee.
There they made contact with Robin (Jennifer Glasse), who wants a child more than anything, and Ash (Isa Arciniegas), who wasn’t told about the decision to adopt and is about to turn pro as a boxer. When Peter drops the boy off, he finds Robin with her brother Ryan (Al’Jaleel McGhee), whom he mistakes for Ash, so he doesn’t realize that the child is going to a same sex couple until Ash comes home at the last minute.
Most of the evening effectively weaves together the complicated concerns and interactions of these characters. Wolf assures us the wolves are very adaptable animals, but we learn that he acts out at school, can get violent at home, and doesn’t respond to Robin, who desperately wants him to love her.
Instead, he begins to bond with tough-as-nails Ash, who didn’t want him there in the first place, and she begins to respond, especially when he tells her his name is Jeenu but won’t talk to anyone else. However, she finds this growing attachment is interfering with her concentration as a boxer, much to the dismay of Ryan, who is her coach and sees her professional success as key to his studio’s future.
Ryan also disapproves of Robin’s tolerant parenting style and believes that Jeenu needs the discipline only a man can provide. At the same time, Peter’s marriage has ended, and he decides he wants the boy back, partly because he’s homophobic about Robin and Ash. Having broken the rules prohibiting contact, he forms an alliance with Ryan to try to undo the adoption even if it means going to court.
The men’s interference leads to the worst possible outcome, and although it’s hard to believe that this is what would happen given the specific circumstances, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. I also found Ryan’s increasingly authoritarian stance with Jeenu not quite believable, though I suppose it can be chalked up to his disappointment in Ash. Still, there’s no question Jung doesn’t think much of men here.
Besides Lin’s performance and that of the puppet, the highlight is watching the way Arciniegas’ Ash slowly and patiently gets through to Jeenu, always taking him on his own terms, never lying or condescending, and falling in love in the process. Her success makes the ending all the more tragic—and infuriating, as it should be.