“The Wolves,” Sarah DeLappe’s stunning debut drama that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, presents the world through the prism of girls soccer.
The play, which is receiving a superb Echo Theater Company production directed by Alana Dietze, revolves around the overlapping exchanges during the pre-match warm-up sessions of a group of high school juniors who play for the Wolves. The talk is fast and fragmentary — routine banter of girls confronting the same social pressures and existential conundrums while their minds and bodies transition into adulthood.
The casual tone rarely changes regardless of the topic, which ranges from the everyday (feminine hygiene products) to the momentous (Cambodian genocide, a social studies area). The manner by which the characters jump from discussing team positions one minute to pregnancy the next is a rich source of comedy. But DeLappe doesn’t exploit this technique. Her faultless ear for dialogue makes it seem as though we’re eavesdropping on these conversational jam sessions. Our laughter comes imbued with a sense of responsibility.
The characters are identified in the script by their team number. Their names are seldom heard, but by the end of “The Wolves” we know hidden aspects of each of these young women. As they stretch quads and hamstrings, pass the ball and pump themselves up for competition, we learn who has an eating disorder, who is already sexually active and who might be a lesbian.
The tight stage of the Atwater Village Theatre confines the physical activity of the cast. When I saw the play in New York at the Duke on 42nd Street, the choreography was more vigorous. But what’s lost in energy is gained in intimacy.
There is less distance separating the audience from the characters. The warm-up exercises aren’t all that theatrically convincing, but the words of these girls don’t have to compete with their movements. Dietze’s ensemble production is vivid with idiosyncratic color. And we hear every syllable of confusion and regret.
Rather than organize the play around a conventional plot, DeLappe disperses points of tensions. The team is undefeated and hoping to make it to the nationals. The dramatic stakes are further raised by the anxiety around college recruitment. But it’s the private stories that ensnare us.
A new girl (Caitlin Zambito) has trouble fitting in because she’s home-schooled, lives in a yurt and has to take three buses to get to practice. But prowess on the field can turn weird into wonder. The striker on the team (Katherine Cronyn) has an aggressive edge on and off the field. She locks horns with the team’s captain (Connor Kelly-Eiding), who’s a stickler for order, and she pushes one of her teammates (Donna Zadeh) into an unsupervised weekend getaway with boys at her hated father’s ski house.
Injuries interrupt dreams, and pressures take their toll. The goalie (Makeda Declet), an overachieving perfectionist, throws up before every game. The most physically fragile team member (Minzi) — a worryingly skinny, concussion-prone player who makes scarves to raise money for Amnesty International to help “Mexican children in cages” — seems to be disappearing before our eyes.
“The Wolves” never loses sight of the secrecy and shame of adolescent bodies. As sexuality begins to exert its disruptive influence, life teaches some hard lessons. Perhaps the hardest of all — loss — leaves these chatty young women suddenly mute.
The play’s circularity may test the patience of theatergoers accustomed to more linear storytelling. But DeLappe manages to steadily increase our empathetic investment in the characters.
How does she quietly pull off this feat? By revealing universal tragicomic truths in ordinary jock-girl existence. To paraphrase Chekhov, characters are just kicking around a ball and shooting the breeze, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn up.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, 4 p.m. Sundays; extended through May 6
Information: (310) 307-3753 or www.EchoTheaterCompany.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes