“We are the Wolves. We are the Wolves,” a group of teenage girls chants, each repetition of the phrase growing in both volume and urgency. The Wolves are a high school indoor soccer team, and the subject of Sarah DeLappe’s play of the same name currently in its west coast premiere at the Echo Theater Company. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017, The Wolves first premiered off-Broadway in 2016 to great acclaim, and has now made a triumphant landing in Los Angeles, directed by Alana Dietze.
All of the action takes place during warm-ups at Saturday game days, as the girls stretch and run through calisthenics, all the while chatting and gossiping away in the simultaneously carefree and devastating way only adolescent girls can. The first conversation we see seamlessly transitions from tampons to the Cambodian genocide, which sets the stage for what is to come—the battle between large, important issues and seemingly inconsequential minutiae that naturally occurs within people trying to find their place in the world.
There are nine players on the team, all of whom are 16 or 17 years old and referred to only by the numbers on their jerseys until a pivotal moment at the end when a couple of their names are revealed. #7 (Katherine Cronyn) is the team’s striker, a talented player who possesses a biting snark beyond her years, never missing a chance to talk about her college boyfriend and her mature sex life. Her best friend and loyal sidekick, #14 (Donna Zadeh), does her best to hide her insecurities, while the awkward #8 (Ellen Neary) seems the youngest of them all emotionally, mostly focused on hoping this year’s nationals are held within proximity of Disney World. #2 (Mitzi) is thin to the point of concern and spends her free time doing charity work, while #11 (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson) is an overachieving perfectionist obsessed with rumors that college scouts may be visiting a game soon. #13 (Jacqueline Besson) is the comic relief of sorts, a witty stoner-type who seems to be there more for the entertainment than the athletics. #00 (Makeda Declet), the goalie, struggles with anxiety to the point where she throws up before every game, and #25 (Connor Kelly-Eiding), the team captain, is just doing her best to keep the girls civil and on task. While this group is pretty tight-knit after years of playing together, the new girl, #46 (Caitlin Zambito), is home-schooled and new to organized soccer, and to the complicated social dynamics of a group of teenage girls. The only adult is one of the moms (Alison Martin), who appears only briefly at the end of the play.
DeLappe’s writing is both skillfully detailed and easily organic. Rarely does any piece of exposition feel forced, which is quite a feat considering that at least an entire week passes between each scene. But necessary new information is revealed in ways that are suspenseful and surprising, and it does not take long at all to get a clear sense of the types of people all nine girls are, and the roles they all play within the group. There are so many dynamics and subtleties that I would have happily watched these characters for longer than the 90 minutes we are given with them, although the current structure works quite well. Throughout the course of the story the girls deal with season-ending injuries, anxiety about the future, coming to terms with their sexuality, and even a heartbreaking tragedy. For every dynamic that is played out to fruition, there is another interesting thread lurking beneath the surface, which speaks to this play’s commitment to painting these girls as fully realized, complex human beings, an impressive feat considering how many of them there are and the relatively brief amount of time the audience gets with them.
The physical action is just as fast-paced as the emotional drama—these girls rarely stop moving, often doing burpees or running laps all while delivering lines and furthering the story. The set (Amanda Knehans) is a blank slate of astroturf, and as the girls pass soccer balls back and forth to one another, it’s like a mesmerizing ballet, staged with great detail by Deitze, accentuated by the non-stop quippy dialogue. There are a few moments that serve to perfectly capture the skewed priorities and short attention spans so many teenagers possess, as well as the true harm gossip can have. When #46 first arrives, no one pays her much attention, but when she proves to be a talented soccer player, the girls suddenly have big reactions to things she says that went right over their heads, unacknowledged, when she said them in the first scene. Another often-revisited conversation topic is a rumor that one of the girls had an abortion a couple months ago, although conflicting information suggests she might have just taken plan B.
The Wolves would be terrific even without the big event that happens towards the end, rocking the girls’ worlds. While this shifts the story from an everyday tale to something much more theatrical and dramatic, a change some may find unnecessary, it allows DeLappe to show off her impressive writing skills in a different way. The information regarding the circumstances of the tragedy is dispersed in a manner that is excruciating in the best way, culminating in an emotional final sequence that is beautifully performed by the talented cast. These roles are great vehicles for young actresses, and the ensemble here is fantastic, creating an immediately believable rapport with one another. The group dynamic is so important that it is hard to identify a standout, although Zambito plays her role of socially challenged outsider particularly perfectly, and her arc within the group is one of the most satisfying.
This is terrific contemporary theater, simple and relatable all at once, showcasing a microcosm of life that is not often explored. Regardless of whether or not you have been a part of a sports team, anyone who has been a teenager, particularly a teenage girl, will see themselves in at least one of the characters, and be left thinking about just how much we do not know about people that lurks beneath the surface. It frankly would have been more deserving of the Pulitzer than the much more meandering Sweat, which bested it, but it will surely go on to live a long life in regional theater, and this fantastic production in Los Angeles is an excellent start.
The Wolves runs at the Echo Theater Company at the Atwater Village Theatre through April 22nd. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm. Tickets are $34 except for Monday performances, which are $20 in advance or pay-what-you-can at the door, subject to availability. To purchase tickets, click here.