The epigraph that introduces Sarah DeLappe’s 2016 play “The Wolves” is a quote from Gertrude Stein: “We are always the same age inside.” Moreover, as the play energetically demonstrates, we are always the same selves inside — even when those selves, stuffed into matching soccer uniforms and bouncing off one another like soccer balls, are still formulating. Ingeniously, in her debut dramaturgical effort, the now-28-year-old writer, who set out to create “a portrait of teenage girls as human beings,” has built a stretching, kicking, jumping-jacking whole that is quite idiosyncratically the sum of its parts.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to operate. “The Wolves,” seen here in its Boston premiere by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston (through Feb. 3), is quite precisely put together: it takes the form of a series of chatty warm-ups by the titular team, neatly packed into the 90-minutes allotted a soccer match. But at the same time, the play’s overlapping dialogue pings around faster than even the most deftly propelled ball. In the first scene alone, as the adolescent athletes do their unison stretches, the nine-part pileup of a conversation ranges from a vividly puerile discussion of menstrual blood and feminine hygiene products to “Harry Potter,” “The Lord of the Rings” and the now-decrepit linchpins of the 1970s Cambodian genocide. Gradually, the players’ non-stereotypical personalities — along with their alliances, conflicts, disparate influences and warrior spirits — emerge.
But it definitely takes some doing to keep up with what’s going on both in and between the overlapping lines. At first it’s hard even to keep up with who’s who since the nine players are identified not by name but by the numbers on their jerseys. #25 is obviously the captain, leading the drills and relaying to her “ladies” instructions from an unseen male coach (thought to be either wasted or hungover). The contained but hyper-intense #00 is the goalie, differentiated by her uniform as well as by her peristaltic reactions to pressure. And though most of the girls have played soccer together since they were young kids, #46 is new to the team and trying gamely — if awkwardly — to fit in. The whispered word is that she’s being home-schooled and lives in “a yogurt” — which turns out to be a yurt.
What’s most striking about “The Wolves” is that it takes its strong, budding personalities seriously even as it lays out the near-comical cacophony in their heads — fed by parents, politics, schoolwork, social media and a lifetime of shared pop-cultural reference. (At several points, two or more of the characters will burst, as if invisibly cued, into song: the Shire Theme from “The Lord of the Rings,” “Preamble” from “Schoolhouse Rock!”)
Equally fascinating, in this latest play in a recent spate about burgeoning women, is the contrast between the Wolves’ ferocity as a pack, huddled and howling before they take the field, and their vulnerabilities as individuals, posturing like the concerned grown-ups they are starting to become, yet not quite able to cull the significant from the trivial. To this effect, there will be a defining event that changes the tone of both the play and the characters’ lives, turning them more somber. It probably will not be what you expect and it may seem a bit engineered. But it makes its point about endurance and bonding in the wake of the scarily unfixable.
A. Nora Long is at the helm of the Lyric production, which features an all-female cast and creative team. Designed by Shelley Barish with lighting by Karen Perlow and sound by Elizabeth Cahill, it’s presented on an Astro-Turf slope behind protective netting (it’s the audience that’s protected) and below overhead lamps that flash to indicate, along with buzzers and crowd noise, that an offstage game is in progress.
I’d have liked to see even more rigorous tandem exercising, but what do I know about soccer warm-ups? Presumably, less than DeLappe, who played from age 8 to 14. Still, one of the production’s most enjoyable sequences features a blank stage as the cast circles around and around the theater spiritedly performing “high knees,” “butt kicks,” and “grapevines,” reappearing only long enough for the captain to change the drill before her daisy-chain of prancing “ladies” takes off again.
There is only one adult character in the play — Soccer Mom (Laura Latreille) who appears briefly, if poignantly, toward the end. Recent graduates of respected college actor-training programs play most of the nine Wolves, though half of them are Actors’ Equity-vetted pros. All are convincing as teenage girls, though some make more vibrant impressions than others. Actors’ Shakespeare Project regular Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, in particular, captures the abrupt and sunny oddity of talented newcomer #46, who at one point makes a brave, quirky song-and-dance out of her alleged residence in a cultured milk product.
I did wish, though, that the actors had drilled their diction skills as sharply as their soccer ones since “The Wolves” deploys, amid its comprehensible drills, tiffs and bouts of roaring camaraderie, intricately feathered dialogue that’s as random as anything in physics. I know that in soccer you’re not supposed to put your hands on the ball unless you’re the goalie. But I wasn’t even on the field and would have liked to catch more. As it is, I feel I’d like to see the play again — which certainly doesn’t put it in the loss column.
“The Wolves” runs at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Feb. 3.