Capital Stage kicked off its 14th season last weekend with a production of Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves.” The company’s producing artistic director, Michael Stevenson, has entitled the season #Searching for America (the hashtag is intended), and Ms. DeLappe’s play probably fits, at least as to a distinct segment of America.
If you knew nothing about the play, its title would be more than a little misleading. The “wolves” are actually a soccer team comprised of high school age girls/young women. The slash mark in that last sentence is also intentional, as nine of the female characters in the play (a tenth, who appears in the penultimate scene, is decidedly older) are in their mid-teens, thus still young enough to be girls, especially to those as little as a decade older, and yet old enough to qualify as adults (both biologically and socially).
Ben Brantley, principal theater critic for the New York Times, raved about the play when it opened off-Broadway in September, 2016. He praised the play as “uncannily assured,” adding that the “exhilarating brightness of raw adolescence emanates from every scene.” The play was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, so Mr. Brantley was not alone in praising it.
The Capital Stage production, directed by Nancy Carlin, did not suggest to me that the play is worthy of that amount of praise. Part of my problem with this production of the play may be the cramped space that exists on the unique stage that the Cap Stage theater presents. For those who have never attended a play at the company’s current location, the stage is small and is set at ground level, so that the audience, all except those in the front row, look down on it, surrounding it on three sides. As a result, space is limited, and the illusion of greater space, by using the aisles from which one exits the theater, is of minimal value when essentially all of the play’s action takes place on the practice field where each scene is set.
I have felt this issue—the reduced stage space as a limitation on the way plays can be presented—in past Cap Stage productions, but never more so than with this play. The nine soccer players are just too cramped to suggest the kind of workouts and practices that are supposed to be occurring as the characters chat and argue and opine on issues as far-ranging as which sanitary pads are best for menstruation and how (and whether) an aging former Cambodian dictator should be punished for directing a genocide that killed billions (or hundreds of thousands, the girls are a little hazy on the factual details).
It may be a quibble, perhaps even an unfair one, but surely set design is significant in any production, and part of set design has to include how certain scenes are going to be staged.
But what about the play itself, you may be asking. Well, I suppose my reaction has to be considered in the light of the portion of the audience I represent. Suffice it to say that I am about as far removed from the age and gender of the play’s central characters as a critic could be (although I’m not that far removed from the esteemed Mr. Brantley in those categories).
But for me, the play is a conceit (built around how young athletes relate to each other at practices and warm-ups for their games) with a somewhat contrived plot point that provides dramatic gravitas in the closing scenes. That said, I did like the final scene and admired the playwright’s apparent desire to make the dialogue sound real. (On that point, I certainly must bow to her expertise. Ms. DeLappe was 24 when she wrote the play, less than a decade removed from the age of her characters.)
These athletes use profanity much as I remember it being used in the boys’ locker rooms when I was in high school. They also talk about sex in much the same way as I recall although without the testosterone-driven bravado that young guys are prone to display. Otherwise, they form cliques and are prone to reject the “new kid” much as I remember how those things would happen way back when.
All of which may be interpreted as calling the play’s subject matter trite. But judge for yourself. Ms. DeLappe has suggested in her comments about the play that she was trying to capture the language of these characters. “I think there’s something beautiful and musical about the way girls wield language,” she has said. And of the kind of theater that excites her she has said, “Theater that’s got a real voice, iridescent and surprising. Cause that’s what all plays are, really: people speaking.”
And so, maybe a lot of the seemingly idle chatter (shallow or superficial would also work) that her characters engage in fulfills her primary purpose in writing the play. And she does adroitly include the dramatic contrivance that gives the climax its gravitas. It definitely worked for some in the audience. I spoke with one “theater person” on opening night who was deeply moved, and many others seemed similarly affected. I was far less emotionally involved (or intellectually challenged).
The production itself, apart from the claustrophobic reaction I’ve previously described, was impressively earnest in presenting the characters and in focusing on their dialogue. The acting ranged from very good to excellent. The standouts in the cast, for me, were Jasmine Osborne as the team captain, Devin Valdez as the late-comer/outsider who tries hard to be accepted by the group, and Tiffanie Mack, as the privileged kid from a wealthy home who knows all about the Khmer Rouge (even how to pronounce it correctly). Leah Dougherty, Ella Dershowitz, Payton Gobeille and Jessica Brooks also gave strong performances. Jessica Dahlgren, Chloe King and Sierra Hersek rounded out the ensemble cast. Technical support was provided by Eric Broadwater (scenic design), Timothy McNamara (lighting design), Rebecca Ann Valentino (costume design) and Ed Lee (sound design).
“The Wolves” will strike a chord with some, especially those closer in age to the members of this particular soccer team or their parents. It will also be appealing to those seeking a window into how young women on the cusp of adulthood react to each other and to the reality that life will all too soon be for all of them.
Performances of “The Wolves” continue at the Capital Stage theater through September 30. Tickets and information are available at the box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464), or online (capstage.org).