Playwright Sarah DeLappe’s impressive academic credentials include an undergraduate degree from Yale’s School of Drama, where she performed in, wrote or helped direct or produce more than a dozen plays, as well as her continuing pursuit of an MFA in playwriting at New York’s Brooklyn College.
But even she acknowledges that the secret sauce that helped name her sharp-witted drama about a girl’s indoor soccer team, “The Wolves,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2017, was cooked up elsewhere. It was out on the fields where she played recreational soccer as a youngster and, perhaps more importantly, years later during her “day job” as a tutor while writing the play when she fine-tuned her ear for teenage girl “dialect” while helping them with their SAT exam preparation, homework and essays.
Capital Stage’s insightful, season-opening production of “The Wolves” shines a bright light on the competitiveness, pain, exultation, insecurities and humor of teenage female athletes, and DeLappe’s authentic dialogue makes it all the more compelling. She captures flawlessly teen speak’s unique cadence and syncopation, with all of its punctuated “likes,” “ums,” profanity and upspeak – where every sentence sounds like a question.
Director Nancy Carlin has recruited a true team of nine actresses/players (and one soccer mom) and coached them to perform with crackling emotion and exact timing, all the while engaged in a carefully choreographed dance of warm-ups, stretching, drills and calisthenics.
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The story takes place during a series of Saturdays throughout the winter, as the Wolves prepare for their weekly matches. The setting is an indoor soccer field somewhere in suburban middle America. The entire production is performed on a large piece of artificial turf with white lines to represent a seemingly infinite field. No men appear on stage, while there are passing references – none complimentary – to a perhaps lazy, perhaps hungover male coach offstage and out of sight.
None of the Wolves players has a name. They call out to each other only by their jersey numbers. Even without names, though, the actresses sporting the numbers deliver spirited performances as they embrace their identities and their roles on the team.
Jasmine Osborne (#25) is powerful and a natural as the team captain and drill sergeant without portfolio, keeping the team on task and focused, leading the warm-ups and calling out the lineups for each game.
Other standouts include Ella Dershowitz (#13), who is delightful as the team’s designated goofball and clown. Payton Gobeille (#7) is the cocky, sarcastic striker, the position that typically leads a team in scoring. And she knows it. She doesn’t lose her cool until she is challenged and feels her position threatened by Devin Valdez (#46), the “new kid” who is understandably awkward but has mad skills on the field. And Chloe King (#00) is the intense goalie with severe performance anxiety who has an unfortunate pre-match ritual: She runs off stage to vomit before taking the field each Saturday.
The actors deliver their lines in a well-coordinated, layered style popularized by film director Robert Altman, most notably in his 1970 dark comedy, “M*A*S*H.” Two or more conversations are going on at the same time as the young soccer players continue with their warm-ups, always switching exercises in exact synch with each other and the spoken dialogue.
The topics are as eclectic and the discussions are as crude and irreverent as can be: While one group is discussing feminine hygiene products, another is simultaneously discussing the availability of the Internet in Asia, a conversation that abruptly morphs into a discussion of the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist regime that ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s and claimed the lives of up as many as 2 million people:
Player #14: “Am I supposed to know about the Khmer Rouge?”
Player #11: “They don’t teach you about Cambodia at St. Albert?”
Player #14: “Um, I don’t think so.”
Player #11: “Oh.”
Player #7: “We don’t do genocides ‘til senior year.”
While the girls like to tease each other, there are clearly topics that are too sensitive for sass – real topics that playwright DeLappe and her characters confront on the turf. They include birth control, unwanted pregnancies, sexual harassment and the appearance of college scouts at the matches and whom they want to meet with afterward.
Tragedy strikes the team toward the end of the play, an event that threatens the very existence of the Wolves as a soccer team and also introduces us to one of the players’ mothers (played by Sierra Hersek).
Soccer Mom addresses some of the players by their names for the first time. But by then, it does not matter. The audience has already learned to respect and appreciate the Wolves because of who they are, regardless of their number or name. And just as important, the audience can now respect and appreciate – and speak – their language.
Mitchel Benson is The Bee’s theater critic and a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: A Pulitzer Prize finalist drama and Sacramento premiere about a young women’s indoor soccer team and the sassy, competitive players’ pursuit of life, liberty happiness and scoring goals. Written by Sarah DeLappe. Directed by Nancy Carlin.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 30.
Cost: $30-$42, including discounts for students, seniors and military.
Information: 916-995-5464 or capstage.org
Running time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.