High school soccer drama ‘The Wolves’ has unconventional but ultimately winning formula

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

From left, Maggie Thompson, Isabel Pask, Jasmine Sharma, Mikey Gray, Maria Habeeb, Renea S. Brown, Katie Griffith, Owen Laheen and Annie Fox co-star in “The Wolves.”

Sometimes you don’t even notice it happening. But there is a point, at some time in the course of a sports team’s season, when they stop being a random collection of people and become a cohesive group.

That moment — among other things — is captured in the Sarah DeLappe-written, Sarah Rasmussen-directed “The Wolves,” which is currently being presented at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. At the beginning of the play, the nine characters are just a bunch of high school students who happen to all be devoted to the same game, soccer. By the end, though, they have been brought together, bonded as one, by the experiences they have gone through.

Clockwise from top left, Mikey Gray, Maggie Thompson, Annie Fox, Jasmine Sharma, Owen Laheen and Katie Griffith in “The Wolves.”

All the scenes take place on an indoor soccer field where the girls play their games. We see them only in their practices and pre-game preparations, doing drills and calisthenics and stretching out — while chatting among themselves.

We never learn many of the characters’ name; indeed, they’re identified in the program by their playing numbers. #00, for instance, the team’s goalie (played by Renea S. Brown), is hyper-focused on achieving and doesn’t speak very much. #2 (Katie Griffith) is from a religious family and possibly bulimic. #46 (Maria Habeeb) is the new girl, and has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. #7 (Jasmine Sharma) is a confident, fun-loving party girl, who may have recently undergone an abortion. #14 (ably played by an understudy, Isabel Rodriguez, the night I attended) is glad to be the charismatic #7’s friend, and eager to stay in her good graces.

They talk the way people really talk, exchanging thoughts about world events and personal hygiene and all kinds of other things. Sometimes, several different conversations are going on at once, or someone doesn’t wait until someone else is finished to begin speaking. DeLappe and Rasmussen (who is McCarter’s artistic director) obviously asked the characters to do this, not because it makes the dialogue easier to understand, but because it makes it seem more real.

We get to know the girls, from game to game, in this way. But everything comes into sharp focus eventually, when … I’ll just say something bad happens. In her most ingenious touch — a brilliant bit of writing, really — DeLappe builds suspense by keeping us guessing about which character that something bad happened to.

It’s devastating. But life goes on, and some of the girls seem to emerge stronger from the ordeal. This may be exaggerating it, but it’s almost like we see these teenagers turn into adults before our eyes.

“The Wolves” has some unrealistic elements. Most of the girls seem equally serious about soccer, and equally intent on earning college scholarships. (In actuality, high school sports tends to attract people with wildly varying levels of skill and interest). No coach is seen, ever (explanations for his absence are sometimes given but this isn’t really satisfying), and the team’s captain, #25 (Mikey Gray), readily becomes the no-nonsense, uncompromisingly tough leader the group needs.

Sorry, but that just doesn’t happen in high school sports. I did like the way, though, that #25 did her routine drills with the kind of crisp perfection that the other characters didn’t quite achieve.

Besides the nine teammates, the only character we see is in a brief visit by one of the girl’s mothers (Katharine Powell). It’s a crucial, heartbreaking scene.

Though I admit I felt myself losing patience with the aimless conversations in the play’s first half, the last few scenes are powerful enough that I can recommend “The Wolves” as not just an unconventional play that will expand your idea of what drama is, but one that scores on an emotional level as well.

The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton will present “The Wolves” at its Berlind Theater through Oct. 16. Visit mccarter.org.

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