Sitting in a circle, nine teenage girls warm up together before an indoor soccer game. Exuberantly chatting with each other in small groups, the pre-game excitement is palpable. As the girls’ conversations overlap with ease, they engage in their group stretch session in choreographed unison; it’s the kind of coalescence that you only find in a group of young people who have spent the majority of their lives in each other’s company.
Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati’s production makes it easy to see why.
The play opens with the girls conversing about the widest array of topics possible. From mundane high school gossip about periods and boyfriends to serious discussions about Cambodian dictators and the death penalty, The Wolves clearly and decisively tackles the safeness of suburbia and the transformational experiences of sports, women’s friendship and unexpected tragedy.
Whatever the setting, this shared childhood experience of stumbling through new information about the real and dark ways of the world — trying to connect it with your newly acquired facts, a blossoming sense of personal ethics and regurgitations of parental figures’ opinions — is incredibly formative. This is the powerful process Ensemble’s production of The Wolves illuminates.
The cast is played by adult women, but D. Lynn Meyers’ direction and the cast’s commitment to the earnest truth of these characters makes it almost impossible to fathom that you’re watching anything other than a group of teenage girls hang out with each other onstage. They portray their characters with such honesty and depth that every small squabble or foot-in-mouth moment feels visceral. The cast has a brilliant way of evoking empathy.
And though each woman is dressed in spectacularly realistic soccer uniforms designed by Stormie Mac, they all bring their own distinct personality to their characters. The way they wear their uniforms, move, kick and talk is distinctly unique, so much so that the effect is almost hyperreal. Played by Maggie Cramer, No. 46 in particular educes the wonderful physicality of hunched shoulders and awkward limbs found in young women who haven’t quite grown into themselves.
And Victoria Hawley plays her character, No. 8, with a sweet authenticity that feels like watching an old video of someone’s childhood friend onstage. As team captain, Katie Mitchell uses a special mix of authority and big sister vibes to portray a young woman desperate to keep her friends on task in the absence of a functioning coach.
The cast in Ensemble’s The Wolves is truly so strong that this is an instance in which I wish I had the room to devote an entire paragraph to each actor’s choices to adequately highlight exactly how good their performances are.
The set, designed by Brian c. Mehring, is unique and impressively functional. Comprised of netting and Astroturf, the set is flat where the actors warm-up for each game, but curves sharply skyward near the back. This curvature creates an isolated effect. Each of the scenes in The Wolves unfolds just before every game as vignettes and conversations; some are continued across the production and others exist in a vacuum.
And though you never see any actual game play, the movement — choreographed by Erin Carr, is realistic enough to illustrate to the audience that these girls are good. Soccer is their life. They play year-round. They have grit, tenacity and ferocity. But even still, and perhaps more importantly, they are best friends.
Soccer is the common experience that has bonded them throughout their young lives; they have become a pack of soccer warriors worthy of their team title: The Wolves. They know their warm-ups by heart, and though they seem repetitive and mundane, these girls are dedicated enough to throw themselves into each practice session with exceptional vigor.
The Wolves displays a devastatingly genuine portrayal of suburban American youth. From the safety of education and dinner table politics to tampons and college anxiety, The Wolves delivers a stunningly realistic reflection on society, sex and female friendship in a fabulously unique way.
The Wolves in onstage at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati through June 29. More info/tickets: ensemblecincinnati.org.