"The Wolves" is a play about an indoor girls soccer team. In order to stage this buzz-laden teen drama as the opening shot of its 31st season, TheaterWorks had to make sure its own team was working together as never before.
New strategies were involved. A management structure that had been put in place a few seasons earlier got a real work-out.
"The Wolves" kicks off the 2017-18 TheaterWorks season Oct. 5 through Nov. 5.
Eric Ort, who's directing the show, first saw "The Wolves" when it was done at Vassar College's Powerhouse Theater in the summer of 2016. That production was directed by Lila Neugebauer, who would also direct the play's New York premiere six months later at off-Broadway's The Duke on 42nd Street theater (produced by Playwright Realm), and will helm it again next month at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse theater.
Ort met "The Wolves" playwright Sarah DeLappe at that Vassar show, but "we didn't really speak," he says during a phone interview last week. "It was probably memorable for her because I was in tears. This play catches you off guard so brilliantly. Sarah has such a gift for capturing the way people speak."
"You're seeing young women in a setting where they're completely on their own," Ort says. "It's about their relationship with each other, not their parents or teachers or boyfriends. It's also interesting that these are athletes. They're strong women who are not so much competitive with each other but competitive on the playing field, with a desire to win."
"There's a subversive quality to it, because this is all taken for granted."
As the director of the theater program for six years at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Ort has a special perspective on "The Wolves" and what he calls "its really authentic representation of how 16- and 17-year-olds talk when there aren't adults looking over their shoulders."
When Ort joined TheaterWorks as its associate artistic director in August 2016, he immediately started lobbying for "The Wolves."
"I knew it would be an uphill struggle. It has 10 characters, when five is a big show for us. It's also deceptively mundane in its story, but so powerful in its cumulative effect. You don't necessarily see that when you're just reading it."
Ort had support from another recent TheaterWorks recruit, Taneisha Duggan, who'd joined the theater in 2015 as its producing associate. She liked how the play handled women's issues.
"All the artistic work I do," Duggan says, "is about representation. It passes the Bechdel test." (The Bechdel test is a critical standard popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel of "Fun Home" fame, in which works of fiction are assessed based on whether the female characters are given names, speak to each other, and discuss something other than men.)
Ort and Duggan set up a private reading of "The Wolves" for TheaterWorks staff and a few invited guests, using some New York actors and several students from the University of Hartford's Hartt School. This was the first reading to be held in the new rehearsal studio that TheaterWorks created when it renovated its 233 Pearl St. building two years ago. The theater hopes one day to create a series of public play-reading events.
"Our reading process is in its infancy," Duggan says. "It's our way of sharing the work we love. We were already interested in producing 'The Wolves' when we did the reading. But 10 actors is a huge investment."
Some of the actors in that reading ended up being cast in the full production. All but one of the 10 performers in "The Wolves" play the young women on the soccer team. Rachel Caplan, Carolyn Cutillo, Olivia Hoffman, Dea Julien, Shannon Keegan, Karla Gallegos, Emily Murphy, Claire Saunders, Caitlin Zoz are the young athletes. Megan Byrne plays Soccer Mom.
Duggan set about adding "The Wolves" to the 2017-18 season. "I was told that Sarah was very involved in where the play goes. It was interesting to have the playwright so intricately involved in the acquisition." Regional productions of "The Wolves" are happening this fall everywhere from Massachusetts to New Mexico, and all have been subject to the playwright's approval.
"They set up a call to suss out how we were thinking," Duggan says. "They felt comfortable that Hartford was far enough away from New York that it wouldn't compete with Lincoln Center. Most importantly, Sarah says, 'I trust you to do this play. I trust you to it with a male director.' There are unspoken gender hierarchies that even the best of us fall into. I told her that I will honor the play as a producer, and that I would be in the room to represent actors and women."
TheaterWorks' Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero, currently directing "Rags" at the Goodspeed Opera House, says that he's "so excited" to open the TheaterWorks season with "The Wolves" and that Hartford is lucky to see such an acclaimed show at a time when other cities have yet to discover it.
For Ort, doing "The Wolves" at the 195-seat TheaterWorks space means "a special intimacy. While The Duke's production had an intimacy to it, ours feels like it has another stage of intimacy. Instead of spectators in the stands, we are spectators at the fence."
THE WOLVES runs Oct. 5 though Nov. 5 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. There is no Saturday matinee on Oct. 7. $45 to $70. 860-527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct that Megan Byrne plays Soccer Mom in "The Wolves."