When you think of teenage girls, what do you picture?
Perhaps you think of your own fast-talking children or your experience in high school. Or maybe you default to cliques and clichés: prom queens and geeks, victims and villains.
In its latest production, a Pulitzer Prize- nominated play by Sarah DeLappe called The Wolves, Live Arts asks audiences to look beyond caricatures of young women and see complex characters.
The Wolves tells the story of nine teenagers as they sprint, stretch, and celebrate one season as a girls’ indoor soccer team. When the story begins, you’re dropped into a circle of adolescents warming up on Astroturf.
Swift dialogue overlaps and ping-pongs from period blood to the pronunciation of Khmer Rouge. As you attempt to make sense of the cluster of jersey-wearing young women, your brain differentiates by doing what it does best: sorting and making sense by stereotyping.
You’ve got the jock, the ditz, the studious overachiever…the list goes on. There’s even an awkward new girl to serve as a counterpoint for the existing tribe. As gossip swirls about the newcomer in their midst, longstanding teammates sharpen their loyalty like a knife.
By playing into your expectations, the show disarms you quickly. Whatever you believe or remember from your teens, there’s a dynamic to suit your tastes.
Personally, when I think of young women and sports teams, I think of being fed to the wolves. Maybe it was my years as a competitive dancer, where I consistently felt like an outsider. Maybe it was my choice to bridge middle and high school with a season on the girls’ cross-country team (I’d never run outside of gym class, but I desperately hoped I’d find acceptance among sweaty, more muscular peers.)
On some level, I still remember high school as a jockeying for social status. My default setting is undoubtedly reinforced by movies and TV, which often portray young women as boy-crazy, vindictive, and unmoored from the world at large.
This is precisely the misrepresentation tackled by The Wolves, which fits into Live Arts’ commitment to diversity by allowing young women a multidimensional representation on stage.
As producing artistic director Bree Luck writes in the show’s program, “This 2018/ 2019 season was devoted to giving voice to marginalized and underrepresented voices. So when our teen selection committee recommended The Wolves for a main stage production, we listened. Never before had we read a play that captured so perfectly the dialogue, the concerns, the richness of discourse, and the intricate behavioral patterns of young women.”
The show quickly peels back the veneer of uniformity, if not the actual uniforms. Each of the nine characters has a distinct personality, with a backstory and conflict that reveals itself over time. We see girls who are foul-mouthed, religious, sexually active, sexually reserved, rich, poor, well-read, well-traveled, and generally confused. They struggle with anxiety and mounting pressure, and almost never talk about boys.
Credit goes to director Kelli Shermeyer and the show’s talented young actresses—including Schuyler Barefoot, Margaret Anne Doren, Mary Lothamer, Camden Luck, Navashree Singh, Alejandra Sullivan, Iris Susen, Chloe Rodriguez Thomas, and Erin Young—for the fact that each character quickly becomes her own person.
In the tight space of the Founders Theater, in identical uniforms and identical surroundings, each girl holds her own. Although it’s an ensemble piece, the play manages to avoid tipping favor to one or a few of its players. The dialogue is funny, the tension is real, and the experience is thoroughly enjoyable.
If these girls are wolves, we’re not meant to see animals tearing each other apart. Instead, we’re presented with a collective of fiercely complex and committed women standing side by side.
Throughout the play, each player carves her identity while facing some of the same heavy issues as adults face. In fact, when the show’s first adult appears, near the very end of the play, it comes as a bit of a shock.
Up until this point, every adult has been an absentee, from the substitute coach who also sells pot to the jet-setting parent with an empty ski lodge and loaded liquor cabinet. So when a soccer mom shows up to deliver orange slices, it feels like an afterthought. As she wonders, out loud, if she really knows anything, you wonder if anyone does.
That’s the moment you realize these teenage girls are holding up a mirror. They navigate depths of grief and joy with shallows of angst and laughter. They question the utility of self-discovery in a world with so much to learn. As you recognize yourself on the field, you see struggling, imperfect humans. So you hope the wolves will win—not just this game, but always.
The Wolves is at Live Arts through March 30.