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The secret lives of soccer players – ‘The Wolves’

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The players gossip before a game. From left to right: #00 — Brooke Sossong, #11 — Neily Raymond, #25 — Bell Gellis Morais, #14 — Katie Brayson, #46 — Pooja Rawat, #7 — Jay Batsimm. The players gossip before a game. From left to right: #00 — Brooke Sossong, #11 — Neily Raymond, #25 — Bell Gellis Morais, #14 — Katie Brayson, #46 — Pooja Rawat, #7 — Jay Batsimm. (photo courtesy UMaine School of Performing Arts)

Teenage pressure is universal. It comes in different forms and flavors for every generation, but every generation must deal with it. And remarkably, for many, the memories of those pressures largely dissipate as we grow older, leaving behind gauzy memories of pleasant vagaries. We forget because it hurts to remember.

Being a teenager is HARD. And in many ways, it has never been harder than it is today.

The demands on their time, the unending deluge of activities and extracurriculars, all in service to a relentless pursuit of what comes next. You have to get the right scholarship to the right school. You have to fill your calendar to bursting, leaving nary a minute unspoken for, all so that you might have a shot at whatever brass ring of higher education you’ve spent the last decade grasping at.

The latest production from the University of Maine School of Performing Arts is a reflection and representation of that struggle. SPA is presenting Sarah DeLappe’s play “The Wolves,” directed by Marcia Joy Douglas; due to COVID-19 restrictions, the show cannot be performed live, but on-demand streaming is available through March 14. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased through the School of Performing Arts website at www.umaine.edu/spa.

The play looks at this omnipresent pressure through the lens of a girls’ soccer team. It is a sharp, darkly funny glimpse at the inner lives of teenagers who have spent their entire existence defined by expectations of the looming future. It is a world where adults are rarely heard and even more rarely seen, leaving the girls to play out all of their hopes and fears alongside one another, even as they play the beautiful game on the field.

We’re in an indoor soccer facility, where a girls’ soccer team – the Wolves – is stretching and warming up. The conversation ranges from the worldly – extended discussions of Cambodian dictatorships and the nature of genocides (seriously, you’ve never heard a group of teenagers say “Khmer Rouge” so many times) – to more seemingly innocuous topics like boyfriends and school and periods and all manner of things. All this while they prepare to face the afternoon’s opponent.

Over the course of the next few scenes – each beginning in a similar fashion – we slowly begin to learn more and more about these girls and the lives that they live away from the pitch. We learn that the new girl #46 (Pooja Rawat) has … let’s call it an unconventional homelife. We have a team captain in #25 (Bell Gellis Morais) who’s a real go-getter. There’s the social anxiety-ridden and self-pressuring goalie #00 (Brooke Sossong), who throws up before every game, and the team’s striker #7 (Jay Batsimm) may or may not have had an abortion. We move from pregame to pregame, learning more and more about these girls and the impact the multitude of pressures they face have on them.

Every one of these players, as well as the rest of the squad - #2 (Julia Whinston), #8 (Lydia Saltzman), #11 (Neily Raymond), #13 (Riley Matson) and #14 (Katie Brayson) – is dealing with a vast and varied collection of concerns, from the minor and mundane to the large and life-changing. There’s a camaraderie here, of course, that sense of team, but there’s also an undercurrent of fear; on the surface, they’re playing a game, but in their hearts, it is something far more serious, both in the present and regarding the future.

There’s a casual ease to the conversation as it bounces back and forth between the innocent and the profane, indicating that the world in which these girls live makes incongruous demands of them – they’re still just kids, but in some respects, society already carries too-high expectations of them. It’s a precarious tightrope, a high-wire act that might lead to perceived success – unless tragedy strikes.

And strike it does.

“The Wolves” is a relative rarity, a pure ensemble piece that only operates at peak capacity if all the participants are buying in. Honestly, I’ve long been a proponent of the idea that a cast is at its best if it functions as a team – and these talented players clearly understand that. From the energetically overlapping dialogue at the top to the haunting team chant at the end, the Wolves ARE a team. A good one.

Presenting a play in this sort of streaming format isn’t easy – stagecraft is very different from other forms of performance. Yet director Douglas and her production team find a way. The dangling overhead lights to the bright green turf are surrounded by a yawning blackness, accentuating both the isolation these girls felt and the oasis of safety that the soccer field has become. The striking set comes courtesy of Tricia Hobbs, while the stark lighting was designed by Jamie Grant; together, they’ve created a bubble of sorts, an ideal playspace for these young actors.

And give credit to Douglas – she has shaped these actors into one hell of an ensemble. The connections made by these performers onstage are palpable even through a screen. The timing, the listening, the engagement – all sharp. Even through masks, they made it work. As I said, they are very much a team … and a team this strong doesn’t happen without a coach.

Let’s talk about that team, yes? I’m not going to praise any of these actors over another – every single one of them makes an incredible and invaluable contribution to the process. Each of them has multiple moments of comic prowess and heartbreaking pathos, cursing and crying all along the way. They are a well-oiled machine, laser focused. But not on their own performances, mind you – every one of these actors seems determined to help the others look good. And when there’s that kind of energy on the stage, magic happens.

(OK, so I said I wasn’t going to praise any actors above the others, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Aja Sobus, who plays a soccer mom. Hers is a particularly tough part – she shows up for one brief scene at the end. Brief, but powerful; the emotional climax of the play hinges on her and she proves more than up to the task.)

“The Wolves” pulls back the curtain on the lives of teenage girls, lives that are a good deal more complicated than we give them credit for; it serves as a reminder of the pressures – seen and unseen – under which they struggle. It’s an impactful, provocative piece – a wonderful challenge for the young actors involved – and it deserves to be seen.

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 March 2021 07:20

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