Is it just me, or are teenagers the main source of sanity in the world these days? From Parkland survivors and the March for Our Lives to Ontario students walking out of class to protest archaic curriculum changes, so-called “teen activism” is one of the only bright spots in the news lately. But that mess of hormones and half-cooked neurophysiology means that they’re a mercurial lot, too — if you’ve spent extended time with a teenager, you know that sometimes the TV remote seems like too much responsibility.
American playwright Sarah Delappe’s award-winning play The Wolves captures that paradox in the most deft and unassuming way. The play is about nine high school students on a girls’ under-18 soccer team, and takes place during their pre-game warm-ups over a six-week span of Saturday mornings. As they stretch and conduct drills, they do what teenage girls do — talk. During warm-ups, the girls’ conversations range from whether it’s OK to feel sorry for a 90-year-old Khmer Rouge leader facing life in prison for crimes against humanity, to showering scorn on their never-seen coach, who is perennially hung over for their games. They gossip about one of their teammates who may or may not have had an abortion, and rail against the injustices suffered by Central American children in US detention centres.
The players are identified only by number and position until the final scene. There’s #46, who is new in town and weirdly keeps calling soccer “football.” They speculate about how she can possibly live in a yogurt, until she informs them that the word is “yurt.” There’s #2, who is making and selling scarves for Amnesty International in support of those Central American children, and also hiding an eating disorder. And #7 is described in the casting notes as “too cool for school,” and is accustomed to being the superstar striker on the team until #46 arrives.
This co-production between Verb Theatre and Calgary Young People’s Theatre is a true ensemble, with no one character emerging as the lead. The actors are high school students, like the characters they play, and this is a challenging text. But there are no real weak links in the cast — similarly, the balanced and interconnected nature of the characters means that it isn’t possible to single out any individuals as more engaging than the others. Director Jamie Dunsdon has done a nice job of weaving together the multiple character threads into a cohesive whole. Each scene is framed around warm-ups and drills that are simply choreographed, making the athleticism an unspoken but important part of the story without having to address the challenge of staging an actual game. There is a great deal in this story that is suggested and implied rather than openly stated, and the impact is greater for it.
The play features Robert Altman-style overlapping dialogue that is executed with variable success. At times, it genuinely has the feeling of a crowded room in which your ear lands on different threads of conversation at different times. But there are lengthy stretches of chaos in which it’s simply noise with no clear content. There is some realism in that, of course, and it doesn’t happen often enough that it draws you out of the narrative. There may be some character development opportunities that are missed as a result, but there is so much meat on these bones that it doesn’t affect the momentum of the story.
This was a first play for Delappe, and perhaps some of the immediacy of the text comes from the fact that she wrote it in her mid-20s, when the late teens weren’t that far in the rearview mirror. But her ear for realistic dialogue is flawless, and demonstrates a careful observation of the ways that character and language shape each other. It’s easy to see why she was a Pultizer-finalist for this play, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
(Photo courtesy Verb Theatre.)
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.