On winter Saturdays, under the bright lights of massive sports domes, indoor soccer players across the United States prepare for battle. Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves richly imagines an elite girls’ team, zooming in on nine high school juniors in the minutes before their weekly matches. Identified only by their jersey numbers, they psych each other up, run drills, and stretch “in perfect unison and with military precision.” They’re both fighting to maintain their undefeated streak and vying for the attention of college soccer scouts—their futures are on the line.

But something else is happening too. In the midst of warmups and pregame banter, the Wolves are starting to define themselves by more than their roles on the team or what their parents and coaches expect of them—and they’re starting to pull away from the safety of suburbia to reckon with the wider world and their places in it.

According to DeLappe, the tension that the Wolves feel—the tension between the world at large and the bubbles that they, like most of us, tend to dwell in—is where the play began. In a 2018 interview, DeLappe describes drafting the first scene of The Wolves right after visiting an exhibition of contemporary Middle Eastern and North African art, much of which depicted war and upheaval. “It was an incredible show,” she recalls, “but I kept thinking about the distance between the people taking in the art—New Yorkers on their iPhones drinking cold brew in the middle of summer—and the artists, who made these political works in response to the current or historical situations of their countries.” Instinctively, DeLappe pushed the gap she observed to an extreme:

“What could be further away from those humanitarian disasters than a bunch of American suburbanites on an indoor soccer field warming up for a game?”

And so in that first scene, as the Wolves get ready to face their next opponent, half the team is debating what should happen to one of the last surviving members of the Khmer Rouge, whom they’ve just learned about in school. Some of the players are flippant—“we don’t do genocides ’til senior year,” shrugs star striker #7—but others are genuinely sorting out what justice might look like for a 90-year-old convicted of crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, their teammates are trying to convince shy #2 to switch from pads to tampons, and #46, the bewildered newcomer, can barely keep up with the swirling cross-talk. In the script, the team’s many voices—unapologetic, goofy, earnest—cascade down the page in multiple columns, as carefully arranged as notes in a piece of music. In performance, part of the pleasure of The Wolves comes from tuning into different overlapping conversations; we in the audience gradually discover who the players are on their terms, as individuals who are coming to own their identities and perspectives.

At the same time, we get to witness their extraordinary soccer prowess. For director Pirronne Yousefzadeh, working on The Wolves begins with the understanding that what the characters say only tells half the story; how they move is equally revealing. “It’s about finding the rigor,” says Yousefzadeh, “and finding the parts of the play that the language doesn’t explain, but the body does.”

The Wolves will be performed in the Bingham Theatre, and given the intimacy of the space and the specificity with which DeLappe combines dialogue with action, a unique brand of virtuosity and focus is required from everyone onstage. The actors have to be athletes too—and bond not just as a cast, but as a team. The production’s movement director, Rocío Mendez, notes that many of the characters have been playing together for years. “They’re a second family for each other. That means they all have to be on the same page physically,” explains Mendez, who will collaborate with Yousefzadeh to create and refine the show’s soccer choreography. “They’re all really good at what they do, and we have to show that.”

It’s a political act, not only to do a play about women, but also to give humanity and a kind of credence to the stories of teenagers.

Pirronne Yousefzadeh

As the Wolves’ season unfolds week by week, life on and off the field tests the team’s endurance. The ritual of warming up transforms into an event unto itself, while the anticipation of the game to come brings out the players’ best and worst—their ambition, strength, and wit, and their capacity for cruelty as well as kindness.

The skill and imagination with which DeLappe crafts nuanced characters has earned her considerable accolades since The Wolves premiered in 2016. In addition to being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, it won The American Playwriting Foundation’s inaugural Relentless Award and was recently featured on American Theatre magazine’s annual list of most-produced plays. “We’re interested in teenage voices in a way that we haven’t always been,” says Yousefzadeh, reflecting on the play’s popularity. “It’s a political act, not only to do a play about women, but also to give humanity and a kind of credence to the stories of teenagers.” For 90 gripping minutes, the Wolves take the stage. “We’re on their turf,” DeLappe wrote in 2018. “They’re not on ours.”

— Jessica Reese

The Wolves runs through February 1, 2020.