Several seasons ago, a collegiate team coached by one of my cousins completely choked. One week the girls were on track to be conference champs, the next they lost to two far inferior teams. An almost-assured trip to the NCAA tournament slipped away.
My cousin was summoned to the athletic director’s office and asked, “What happened?” He didn’t know. A female assistant coach finally got a confession out of one of the girls: As it turns out, the downward skid began right after one of the seniors slept with another player’s boyfriend. Three starters stopped speaking to each other, and the whole team’s dream went down the drain.
Girls’ sports. They are so full of drama, from boy problems to cataclysmic ACL tears, and it’s high time someone wrote a good play about them.
That long-awaited pitch-to-stage drama is Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves. A winning production of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist is currently running at Studio Theatre, and it’s as thrilling as a World Cup penalty shoot-out.
Let’s be clear, however: The play is great, but for this theater critic who broke her third metatarsal playing intramural soccer in college, nothing will ever top Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey after the U.S. beat China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
None of the nine Wolves we meet aspire to be the next Chastain, Briana Scurry, or Mia Hamm. If they were that good, the girls would have already been scooped up by ODP, as they accurately abbreviate the Olympic Development Program. (All the soccer lingo is spot-on.) What they still hope for is a full ride to play soccer in college, and their bids for scholarships begin around age 11, when girls start playing year-round. That goal sends them to an off-season indoor league, and an arena somewhere in middle America where first-time playwright DeLappe sets our scene.
It’s a brilliant conceit that relieves DeLappe from having to set The Wolves in a locker room (boring) or on a grass field (tough to fake indoors). Designer Debra Booth created an immersive environment in Studio’s flexible Stage 4 space, which for past shows has been configured as a dive bar, a church basement, and a planetarium. Seating is general admission in bleacher-style seats, positioning audiences on either side of the AstroTurf. Fluorescent lights buzz and flicker above. Much effort went into both the lighting and sound design, which creates a “We Will Rock You” ambiance between scenes.
The attention to aesthetic detail would be worthless if Studio had not found nine actors in their early- and mid-20s who could credibly play high school girls and play soccer. Much of the dialogue is delivered as the cast drills, dribbling off their toes and insteps. Just as important as the footwork is the actors’ commitment to playing actual teenagers, not caricatures of them.
As in Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird, DeLappe and director Marti Lyons treat the girls like young people who are genuinely funny yet not fully formed. The subject they jabber most about is social studies, including international crises they may not fully grasp. When the public school girls on the Wolves start chatting casually about Rwanda, a tart Catholic school player quips, “We don’t do genocide until senior year.”
Other topics up for debate: leaking tampons, cute boys (or in one case, a cute girl) and nagging parents. As the taut, adrenaline-pumping play clips on, the issues at stake become less inane: eating disorders, race, sexual identity, and maybe even rape.
Other plays both good and bad dwell on one of the above for 90 minutes. There’s the rugby-team-gone-rogue play Really Really, for example. And D.C. has seen a slew of shows about gay athletes in recent years, including Red Speedo and Jumpers for Goalposts (both at Studio), Colossal (at Olney Theatre Center) and Take Me Out (at 1st Stage), while plays that approach athletes as people have been rare. That dearth doesn’t match American demographics. A 2015 NPR/Harvard poll found that nearly 75 percent of Americans played sports as kids, and nearly one in four adults still does.
Why not put on plays that appeal to them? Why not put on plays about my cousin and his drama-prone NCAA team?
As a soccer fan, I had to watch the U.S. women lose three successive World Cups before winning again in 2015. After seeing The Wolves, I’m ripping off my jersey, swinging it around, and saying, “Please theatermakers, don’t make America wait another 16 years for a sports play as good as The Wolves.”
At Studio Theatre to March 11. 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$90. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.