In soccer, juggling is the trick of keeping a ball in the air by repeatedly kicking it to oneself. A few of the teenaged soccer players juggle in “The Wolves,” which opens Friday at Southern Rep Theatre. But the real juggling in Sarah DeLappe’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist is the rapid-fire, simultaneous conversations the girls have while warming up for games.
The ensemble work features nine teammates on a stage covered in artificial turf with the audience seated on two sidelines. The play captures the lives of the teens in the immediacy of their freewheeling banter. While the players stretch before a game, player No. 11 (Helen Jaksch) rails against Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia. Fielding questions from teammates not familiar with the Khmer Rouge, another player describes them as “Asian Nazis from the ’70s” and pushes the conversation along. Other players offer No. 2 (Emily Russell) advice on feminine hygiene products, until they laugh at the prospect of bleeding on the game ball. The two topics bounce around the team’s circle until they collide in a brilliant moment of teen flippancy about a “mass grave.”
The women are members of the Wolves, a team of talented players in a New York recreation league filled with kids from affluent families. Like any conversation between groups of teens, their exchanges race through far-ranging subjects from sizing up their competition and scrutinizing their coach’s personal life to debating world affairs and teasing each other. As the Wolves try to qualify for a tournament, a new girl joins the team and more serious subjects spill onto the field when they get to know each other. The drama is grounded in the rhythm of playing sports, being part of a team and the desire to win.
“(With sports, there is) winning and losing in a set period of time — you get an answer,” says director Aimee Hayes, who played soccer in school and adult leagues. Playing against opponents draws the Wolves together as rivalries develop between teammates.
It’s the second play Southern Rep has produced that looks at relationships through the prism of sports and competition. In 2016, it presented “Colossal,” about a star football player who suffers a severe neck injury. As with “Colossal,” production of “The Wolves” included conditioning and practices. Jessica Salas Wilson, who played for a Mexican national team, started coaching the cast on skills in November.
There are not many dramas about women in sports or ensemble pieces for all-woman casts. (The NOLA Project presented the all-women drama “Men on Boats” last year.) DeLappe’s play is about the lives of teenagers, and its setting is contemporary. The players are aware of social media, and they’re trying to making sense of the world, from sexual politics to world news. One teen knits scarves to raise money for poor children elsewhere in the world, which draws a mix of support, scrutiny and skepticism from others.
“You can forget the passion you had as a teenager,” Hayes says. “Teenagers care about all sorts of things.”