The Jungle Theater’s new production, The Wolves, is named for a fictional girls’ soccer team. Eavesdropping on their warm-ups for 90 minutes, you learn a lot about their lives, but what first strikes you is also what will stick with you long after the plot details have faded away: the show’s finely measured tone, situating the tragicomic tumult of adolescence on a swath of artificial turf.
Sarah DeLappe’s 2016 script is one of the hottest new plays in the country, and prior to Friday’s performance, director Sarah Rasmussen took the stage to explain how she lobbied for the Jungle to be one of the first regional houses to produce The Wolves. When you see the show, you’ll understand what all the buzz is about.
The Wolves are an indoor soccer team playing through the winter somewhere in “middle America” (at least, that’s what the girls think their region is called). We see the players before games, and for most of the show we know them only by their uniform numbers. Their unseen coach is a sketchy inebriate, so leadership falls on the shoulders of the team captain, #25 (Shelby Rose Richardson).
The opening scene establishes the wide-ranging nature of the girls’ concerns. While they sit in a circle, repeating ritualistic stretches, their discussion veers from genocide to pregnancy to school gossip. DeLappe’s most subtle achievement here is to consistently get laughs, often hinging on the youths’ naivete, without mocking her subjects. The humor comes from recognition: It builds, rather than burns, empathy.
Another bit of genius was realizing what a ripe dramatic setting a soccer field could be. In every scene, the tension of the upcoming game interacts with the joys and stresses of the girls’ off-field lives. The Jungle’s compact stage isn’t an obvious choice for a play involving actual running and kicking, but Rasmussen and her cast infuse this dynamic production with real athleticism. The girls are played by a superb cast of young adult actors, although it will be fascinating to see how The Wolves plays when it ultimately makes its way to youth companies. Becca Hart brings gravity and petulance to the role of #7, a mercurial talent who’s making some questionable decisions. Her opposite pole is Megan Burns as a smart but bashful new girl who’s home-schooled in a yurt. This is a true ensemble piece, though, without a weak link in the cast.
The real weak link is DeLappe’s over-reliance on heavily teased plot contrivances, which create dramatic momentum but lend the show a distracting element of artificiality. A trick that works better is keeping adult characters entirely offstage until “soccer mom” Jennifer Blagen enters near the show’s conclusion, to deliver a pep talk that devastatingly subverts genre clichés. The same is true of the entire play; you’ll kick yourself if you miss it.
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-822-7063; through May 6