Here’s an example of the logical progression of a conversation among the members of the girls soccer team depicted in Sarah DeLappe’s beautifully bustling play “The Wolves.” One teenager expresses her concern for the plight of the child refugees she sees on the news coming into the U.S. from Central America. Another self-deprecatingly confesses that she sometimes refers to Central America as Middle America, which leads another to suggest that Middle America sounds like Middle Earth. Suddenly three girls are referring to their home as the Shire and doing a silly dance while humming music from Lord of the Rings.
When: Through March 11
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn.
Run time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
From poverty to pop culture to plenty of personal secrets, DeLappe’s dialogue bounces around while these young athletes — so serious about soccer they compete in a winter indoor season and hope to get seen by college scouts — stretch and sprint and run passing drills on the netted-in stage of Goodman’s intimate Owen Theatre.
“The Wolves” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2017, which gives you a sense of the level of talent the 26-year-old DeLappe possesses. Undoubtedly influenced by dramatists such as Sarah Ruhl (“In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play”) and, particularly, Annie Baker (“The Flick”), “The Wolves” provides an excellent example of the exciting work emerging in contemporary American theater, particularly those giving dramatic voice to seemingly quiet lives. As the judges on “Project Runway” might say of a winning fashion statement, this play’s style is “very now.”
This Goodman production, directed with just the right balance of physicality, subtle nuance, and quirky humor by Vanessa Stalling, stars an exceptional ensemble of all-local performers. Each provides a full and sympathetic character portrayal, despite the dispersion of the dialogue among the actors and the fact that they are mostly known only by their jersey numbers.
While the rat-a-tat dialogue, which feels so true to how young people talk, can be a challenge to follow — especially when multiple conversations overlap — it’s always clear what’s happening when the conversation grinds to an awkward halt whenever someone crosses an imaginary line and deals a hurtful blow. That’s one very practical effect of characters always being engaged in a physical activity — when you’re doing two things at once, you are less guarded against error, which provides a naturalism to the inevitable faux pas.
And, of course, teenagers can be especially sensitive. There’s great humor in the more obvious adolescent troubles, such as when No. 8 (Cydney Moody) frets loudly over a zit, or when the kids get asked questions about their parents. Perhaps the driest, funniest line of all comes from the studious No. 11 (Sarah Price), who, upon revealing that both of her parents are therapists, quickly but sincerely deadpans, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
But most of what happens here deals with issues far deeper, such as social anxiety disorder and rumors of an abortion. Part of what makes this play so successful is that we often learn more about the characters by what goes unsaid. For example, eating disorders don’t even get a mention, but with just a quick devouring of some fruit and one expression of concern, we know that No. 2 (Taylor Blim) likely suffers from one. Similarly, we don’t need any discussion of sexual orientation to reach an understanding that the earnest team captain (Isa Arciniegas), has a crush on an offstage female friend.
For several reasons — including her display of some serious soccer skills – Erin O’Shea stands out here as the new girl about whom the others are exceedingly curious, particularly when they learn she takes multiple buses to get to practice and lives in a yurt. O’Shea catches what it’s like to be an outsider who craves friendships but isn’t particularly talented at making them.
Above all, this ensemble creates a genuine sense of camaraderie alongside the characters’ competitiveness and insecurities. You get the sense that, no matter how long and how successful these actors’ careers may be, they’ll think back fondly on having been part of this winning production of “The Wolves.”
Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.