It’s a comparative rarity at the University of Montana School of Theatre & Dance to see an all-female cast, with a female director and stage manager as well.
But for their production of “The Wolves,” director Pamyla Stiehl said it wouldn’t work any other way.
“It’s a female playwright, I’m a woman directing and the entire cast are women,” Stiehl said. “It’s about women in high school going through really important, amazing moments in their life.”
“The Wolves,” written by Sarah DeLappe, debuted in 2016 in New York and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2017. The play follows nine members of a high school soccer team, who are shown warming up before games.
The dialogue is naturalistic, with cross-talk and gossip intermingled with serious discussions about abortions, their coach’s drinking problem and politics. Each player is known by her jersey number only, with only one other cast member, a soccer mom who gives a dramatic monologue at the end.
The show is part of UM’s Studio Series, which is made up of more actor-centric plays, according to Stiehl.
“We try to strip away the bells and whistles of scenery,” Stiehl said. “The audience just has to invest in the actors in front of them.”
“The Wolves” fits right in, with its bare set of green AstroTurf and simple costumes of blue jerseys, soccer shorts and tennis shoes.
Most of the scenes depict the players warming up, either stretching, running drills or passing the soccer ball. These skills took some training from Maddie Tight, a doctoral candidate in the physical therapy program. They also got some tips (and practice jerseys) from the UM women’s soccer team, Stiehl said.
“Most of them had not even worked with a soccer ball before,” Stiehl said of her actors. “They learned how to dribble, stop a ball…. They worked all summer on their roles.”
Stiehl first heard of “The Wolves” around a year ago, and wasn’t sure the UM theater program could pull it off, given the soccer focus and unique acting requirements.
Last spring, when they scheduled the fall 2019 plays, they decided to go for it, Stiehl said, and her cast were committed enough they worked over the summer to prepare.
The cast got close enough to their characters that Stiehl had some mental health-focused talks with them, especially dealing with a couple of highly affecting events in the script.
“This is why I got into theater and it’s just been pretty amazing seeing these women get into this show,” Stiehl said. “It’s an amazing piece for actors to try to conquer.”
“The Wolves” has received acclaim from its debut to productions in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Portland over the last three years. More recently, the play has made its way to smaller stages like UM’s.
In a glowing review in the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney breaks down what is special about “The Wolves:”
“The economy of the writing is impressive indeed, addressing issues from maturity to mortality, from solitude to solidarity with masterful sleight of hand,” Rooney wrote. “We come to know, care about and, yes, even love these girls, so much so that you want to draw a magic circle around them to protect them. But part of DeLappe's point is that each of them is a person with agency, and they will hurtle forward, encountering their own losses and victories under their own steam.”
Megan Merhar, a senior, plays No. 25 and Renee Ross, a sophomore, plays No. 7. They both auditioned based on the play’s realistic depiction of teenage girls, from the way they talk, to the way they mature and deal with adversity. By the way, the show does have a warning for its mature themes and content.
“They didn’t shy away from what girls talk about in high school,” Merhar said. “They have no real understanding, (yet) speak with such authority.”
Ross added, “It’s an accurate representation that doesn’t apologize.”