Perfect match

Philadelphia Theatre Company presents Sarah DeLappe’s ‘The Wolves’

3 minute read
When everything feels monumental: Hannah Gaffney, Michelle Tsai, and Tori Lewis in PTC’s ‘The Wolves.’ (Photo by Anthony Werhun.)
When everything feels monumental: Hannah Gaffney, Michelle Tsai, and Tori Lewis in PTC’s ‘The Wolves.’ (Photo by Anthony Werhun.)

Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC) planned to present the long-anticipated local premiere of The Wolves back in April, but as it did with everything else, 2020 had other plans. Originally postponed in the hopes of a future in-person engagement, Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer finalist has re-emerged as a streaming production, available to rent through December 20. Was it worth the wait?

Perfectly believable

The play itself certainly deserves to be seen. DeLappe—who was still in graduate school when The Wolves, her professional debut, premiered Off-Broadway in 2016—has been justly lauded for the unforced, conversational rhythm of her dialogue; her authentic and unpatronizing portrayal of teenage self-discovery; and her ability to turn potentially banal situations into heightened theatrical events. The action revolves around a weekly girls’ indoor soccer league, which becomes, through DeLappe’s lens, a microcosm of the entire adolescent experience.

The audience never learns exactly where the action takes place—the term “Middle America” is thrown around in an early scene, but without any specificity—or even the names of the nine girls who make up the team. For much of the play, they are identified solely by their jersey numbers and their positions on the field. Yet DeLappe manages to infuse each character with a distinct personality, a range of temperaments from arrogance to cluelessness to debilitating shyness. The result is perfectly believable: You’ll undoubtedly recognize someone you knew in high school, or perhaps echoes of an earlier version of yourself.

Saturdays on the turf

DeLappe captures the way every interaction can feel monumental to a 16-year-old, even when it might seem small on the surface. The reverberations of an offhand comment might ripple through a social group for weeks afterward, causing rifts and resentment that fester even when the inciting event is ultimately forgotten. She doesn’t condescend to the fact that when you’re young, everything is amplified. A discussion about the morality of prosecuting elderly war criminals can hold the same gravity as whether to sneak away for a long weekend with your boyfriend. Pound for pound, line for line, it is one of the most authentic expressions of adolescence I’ve ever encountered onstage.

Given the intimacy baked into the script, a successful production needs to project unforced camaraderie and unspoken bonds among the athletes. PTC’s staging—helmed by Nell Bang-Jensen, artistic director of Norristown’s Theatre Horizon—largely achieves that. There are certainly standout individual performances, but the real marvel is how copacetic the ensemble feels; I never questioned that most of these girls had spent countless Saturday mornings together on the turf. That connection makes the late-play pivot into tragic territory, which I won’t reveal here, even more shattering.

Proving the artists’ skill

The entire team merits a mention: Michelle Tsai, Hanna Gaffney, Margaret Morgan, Donovan Lockett, Annika Cowles, Iraisa Ann Reilly, Emma Lenderman (especially memorable as a quirky newcomer who just wants to make friends), Alison Ormsby, and Tori Lewis. Veteran local actor Leah Walton appears in the final scene as the only adult character; she disarms with humor before going for the emotional jugular.

Despite strong acting, some digital elements of PTC’s production leave something to be desired. Companies must work within restrictions and prioritize safety, so The Wolves was filmed entirely remotely, with the performers appearing in individual boxes against a green-screen soccer field. This leads to many instances of the characters delivering their lines directly to camera, which doesn’t serve a script that relies so heavily on a sense of multiple overlapping conversations. It can also be difficult to tell exactly who is speaking, with some dialogue occasionally out of sync. It’s a testament to the skill of the cast, and the undeniable brilliance of DeLappe’s writing, that technical deficiencies don’t pull more focus.

The technical flaws might warrant a yellow card, but The Wolves is a match you certainly don’t want to miss.

Before you watch: The Wolves contains content that might be disturbing or triggering to some viewers, including references to self-harm, eating disorders, and premature death.

Image description: a photo of three young women (actors Hannah Gaffney, Michelle Tsai, and Tori Lewis). They are sitting facing each other and stretching their legs on a soccer green. They’re wearing shorts, jerseys, shin-guards, and cleats.

What, When, Where

The Wolves. By Sarah DeLappe. Directed by Nell Bang-Jensen. Philadelphia Theatre Company. Streaming production available to rent (pay-what-you-can) through December 20, 2020.

The Wolves is closed-captioned in English and Spanish.

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