Against all kinds of obstacles, women in theater have thrown down the gauntlet on more than one front. Freedom from harassment, decent access to directing, design and stage management jobs, consideration for women playwrights and actors when artistic directors are choosing their seasons... It's all on the table. And it only makes sense. If you look around when you go to the theater, you already know that audiences are more likely to be made up of women. But how have theaters responded? Is anything getting better? From my perspective, the answer is yes and no. Locally, we've seen some progress*, a continuation of good work**, and a decided retreat into Same Old Same Old White Guy Theater***. But Chicago's Goodman Theatre has taken the ball and run with it, with programming like Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves, directed by Vanessa Stalling, who earned her MFA in directing at Illinois State University.
The Wolves is a wonderful choice, an inside look at a team of girls playing soccer and what's important to them. Stalling is the perfect director for it, too, with her emphasis on the physical side of theater, and appreciation for women on stage who can "look strong, be aggressive or take up space." That is exactly what these soccer players do as they run through practice, joke around, pick at issues they may not exactly understand, vie for playing time, and struggle with things like friendship, teamwork, sexuality, parents and mortality. None of it is revolutionary, just new, because somebody is finally listening in to teenage girls who find joy in strength and competition, pushing and kicking their way in a world that isn't all that welcoming.
DeLappe's script uses overlapping, fragmented dialogue that kicks around in a much less disciplined fashion than the drills the girls are running, veering from global atrocities to yogurt, yurts, tampons and maxi pads with breathless speed. Both the dialogue and the action are choreographed and tricky, but Stalling keeps her actors on their toes throughout the play and together, they drive the narrative perfectly. Whether or not any of these women actually played soccer during their high school years, they've brought their skills up to a level that reads like the real thing. Their stamina and focus are amazing.
As #46, Erin O'Shea stands out both with her soccer prowess as well as her acting, delivering emotional depth as an outsider who can't quite figure out the social cues that come so easily to her teammates. ISU grad Cydney Moody is a delight as #8, the more naïve one who falls apart when she finds out that the national tournament will be in Tulsa instead of Orlando, while Sarah Price makes smart girl #11 a real treat. I also enjoyed Isa Arciniegas as the no-nonsense captain of the team, Taylor Blim as a sweet girl who shows signs of an eating disorder, Angela Alise as the stressed-out goalie, Mary Tilden as a goofball whose jokes don't exactly land, and Aurora Real De Asua and Natalie Joyce as the most socially advanced of the bunch. Meighan Gerachis arrives late in the game, but she makes quite an impact with a heartbreaker of a monologue.
The Wolves is staged in the round (or rectangle) in the Goodman's Owen Theatre, with the audience up close to the action. Set Designer Collette Pollard has created a simple but effective space lined with artificial turf and surrounded by netting that allows for in-your-face athletics. Mikhail Fiksel's sound design and Keith Parham's lighting design add a blast of energy, as well.
Because it has proved so popular, The Wolves has been extended past its original end date. That means you can still see it through March 18 if you can get a ticket.
By Sarah DeLappe
The Owen Theatre at the Goodman Theatre
February 9 to March 18, 2018
Directed by Vanessa Stalling
Set design by Collette Pollard
Costume design by Noël Huntzinger
Lighting design by Keith Parham
Original music and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel
Dramaturgy by Kristin Idasak
Production Stage Manager: Nikki Blue
Soccer Skill Building Coach: Katie Berkopec
Cast: Angela Alise, Isa Arciniegas, Taylor Blim, Aurora Real De Asua, Meighan Gerachis, Natalie Joyce, Cydney Moody, Erin O'Shea, Sarah Price and Mary Tilden
* Illinois State University has done excellent work in spotlighting plays by women, people of color and from authors outside the United States, in its last two seasons. In Urbana, the Station Theatre is devoting most of its current season to women playwrights and women directors.
** New Route Theater in Bloomington-Normal continues its mission of giving a voice to underrepresented communities and ethnically and culturally diverse playwrights.
*** Heartland Theatre has just announced a new mainstage season that will be 100% white male voices, after two seasons with paltry representation (a play by Anna Zeigler in 2017 and book and lyrics by Tina Landau in this year's Floyd Collins are the sole contributions of women) and more than double the number of roles available to men over those seasons.