For the women of The Wolves, sport and show biz are inextricably linked. In playwright Sarah DeLappe's hyper-kinetic, 90-minute Pulitzer Prize finalist, the sweat is real. As DeLappe spins the story of a high school women's soccer team, the cast is called on to execute intricate, multi-play maneuvers on a stage not even half the size of a soccer field.
Making The Wolves physically authentic has been paramount for director Vanessa Stalling, who brought in Loyola soccer coach Katie Berkopec, 25 to ensure there's no sham soccer. "Technically it's extremely challenging since you're just using your feet," said Berkopec. "It's very much a contact sport, but you have to be strong mentally as well as physically."
Wrapping your head around soccer often means going against a lifetime of social cues, Stalling said.
"Young women are socialized not to take up space. Not to be aggressive. Not to fully raise their voices. Soccer demands that they do something 180 degrees different," Stalling said. "I super-geek out the physical challenges of staging this play. It's intricate, it's dynamic and most of the dialogue happens while everyone is in motion. And we do have to make sure we don't bonk anybody in the audience."
Berkopec's resume seems tailored to meet the show's demands. Now an assistant soccer coach at Loyola, the Rogers Park resident played soccer for 16 years. She played goalie from middle school through her undergrad years, where she finished her senior year at University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, with season that included seven shut-outs. She earned a master's in Education Leadership from Minnesota's Winona State University and arrived at Loyola after stints coaching at Ripon, Winona State and University of Wisconsin.
The benefits of soccer reach far beyond honing your athleticism, Berkopec said: "Soccer has given me relationships that will last a lifetime. It has taught me how to face failure, and how to face victory. And it's given me a competitive drive that I take into every aspect of my life."
Through the women of The Wolves, playwright DeLappe shows how the sport engenders fierce camaraderie and mental toughness as well as teaching the players how to deal with life on and off the field. Before the scene is over, ugly instances of racism and classism have cropped up on the practice field. With rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue as quick and intricate as perfect one-touch/two-touch drill, DeLappe's characters display bullying, micro-aggressions and ignorance as well as loyalty, compassion and a ferocious competitive drive.
DeLappe's stage directions call for "military precision" in the on-stage athleticism: When Berkopec runs rehearsals, they essentially turn into physical education classes, from warm-ups to laps to skill building.
"In movies and pop culture, there's tons of imagery of men gearing up for battle," said Stalling, "It's like 'here they are getting ready to fight on the beach, here they are in the trenches, here they are on planes.' With 'Wolves,' we see that type of trope in a female world."
"There's so much real life that happens on the soccer field," added Berkopec,"there's a common purpose, but it helps define who you are individually. When I have those days where I don't want to vacuum the apartment or whatever? There's a side of me that says, 'get off the coach and just go do it.' Whether it's vacuuming or going for a job, soccer can help you push through. That's not just sports. That's life."
The Wolves runs through March 11 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets are $10-$47; visit Goodmantheatre.org or call 312-443-3800 .