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Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves,” now at Studio Theatre, unfolds over a winter season of girls’ indoor soccer. Each Saturday before the game, the team’s 16- and 17-year-old players warmup on the field’s edge. During this time, they talk about everything from the Khmer Rouge to boys to tampons. Nothing is left off the table.
Director Marti Lyon’s delightful and impeccably staged production is Studio’s contribution to the Washington region’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival. The play unfolds on the soccer field, a large rectangle of bright green indoor turf lit by tubes of fluorescent light compliments of set designer Debra Booth. Here is where Delappe’s overlapping dialogue is delivered naturally as the players stretch, perform demanding drills and pass soccer balls in a series of scenes punctuated by abrupt blackouts. What initially seems entertaining but insignificant snowballs into a compelling story.
Eight of the nine team members, who are known by the numbers on their jerseys, have been playing together since middle school. Each player’s place on and off the field is firmly established: There’s bright no. 11 (Lindsley Howard), foulmouthed no. 7 (Katie Kleiger), wisecracking no. 13 (Sara Turner), babyish no. 8 (Shanta Parasuraman), no-nonsense no. 25 (Chrissy Rose); reluctant follower no. 14 (Maryn Shaw), do-gooder bulimic no. 2 (Merissa Czyz) and the overachieving, anxiety ridden goalie no. 00 (Gabby Beans).
But the new girl’s status remains to be pegged. Among the middle class American girls, no. 46 (Jane Bernhard) is a rara avis. She’s home schooled, lives in a yurt, uses public transportation, doesn’t shave her legs and calls the sport “football.” Also, it’s her very first time playing organized soccer; she claims to have simply picked up the game while exploring the world with her travel writer mother. Despite language barriers, kicking a soccer ball around has been a reliably good way to make friends, she says.
Initially the other girls are suspicious and standoffish, but then no. 46 proves an impressive striker and the only team member who can score a goal with a bicycle kick. Her rise in the athletic ranks makes for trouble among the girls and upsets the team’s long-established rhythm and order.
Lyons has assembled a talented squad of 20-something actors to play the team’s emotional and partly hormone-fueled members. They demonstrate both acting prowess and varying degrees of soccer skills. Bernhard’s no. 46 notably juggles a soccer ball with her feet while singing a longish rhyme about her imperviousness to verbal bullying. The cast’s 10th woman is Studio veteran Anne Bowles as a distressed soccer mom.
If you suspect that 90 minutes of teen talk might be tedious, you’d be wrong. In addition to giving an accurate glimpse into team sports complete with injuries and rivalries, DeLappe serves up high school juniors who are nuanced and real; there’s nothing trite about them. And revelations, including a rumored abortion and a budding lesbian romance between team caption no. 22 and a much-spoken-about nonconformist who notoriously licked the microphone at an open-mic night, never feel forced.
In 2014, DeLappe (then just 23) wrote “The Wolves” in a jaw-dropping three weeks. Fast-forward four years and the play is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Broadway hit. Perhaps it’s because of the playwright’s youth that the dialogue rings so true. She’s created characters that are authentic and memorable. Often sensitive and unsure as they move toward adulthood, they are always warriors on the field.