A Sharp and Wise Play About Girls Devoted to Soccer Amid the Pressures of Teenage Years

You will feel after 95 minutes of “The Wolves,” Sarah DeLappe’s sensational portrait of American high school girl power, as if you, too, have made the team.

That’s because this incisive playwright manages —with the assistance of an exemplary director, Marti Lyons, and nine striking young actresses (plus one slightly older one, playing a soccer mom) — to illuminate with unerring accuracy the psyches of the funny, inquisitive, garrulous, anxious, profane, passionate players in a ferociously competitive weekend soccer league. The characters come across as so authentically specific it’s as if DeLappe pinpointed each of them on the closest-in setting on Google Maps.

The Studio Theatre production, enacted on set designer Debra Booth’s cleanly utilitarian field of artificial turf bisecting a pair of indoor spectator stands, allows an audience to eavesdrop on a series of warm-ups by the girls, as they prepare to face teams of other young women, who presumably are just as hungry for victory. The Wolves rev themselves up as they prepare to test their mettle against groups with other nicknames suggesting intimidation and aggression: the Hornets, Extreme Explosion, Blue Storm. On the grass is also where, in every sense, these kids purge their adolescent terrors and in spite of themselves, learn to grow up.

DeLappe uses numbers to identify them for much of the evening in Studio’s penthouse black-box space. But they’ll seem as familiar to many of you as the girls your siblings and daughters have brought home for sleepovers. Athletic No. 00 (Gabby Beans) is the hyper overachiever who can’t quite digest the pressure she places on herself; angry No. 7 (Katie Kleiger), the loudmouth who manifests her restlessness in careless, self-damaging ways; eccentric No. 46 (Jane Bernhard) is the new kid who’s lived all over the world but has failed to absorb the norms of teenage interaction; skittish No. 2 (Merissa Czyz), the girl whom everyone observes is way too thin — and everyone is afraid to admit they know why.

Their stories are parceled out, detail by detail, in the wonderful cross-talk and side conversations that confirm the limited teenage attention span, the girls’ parallel senses of fragility and invulnerability, the sheltered world most of them inhabit. “We don’t do genocides till senior year,” says No. 7, as the talk in the stretching circle bounces from the history-class subject of Cambodia and “the Kaymar Rowge,” as unsophisticated No. 13 (Sara Turner) calls the Khmer Rouge, to expressions of worry about getting into a college sports program, to complaints about the uselessness of their unseen male coach. He is mostly on the sidelines, apparently, sleeping off the celebratory effects of the night before.

They’re all souls in transition, moving on from the embryonic status of childhood, but still evoking all of the bravado and insecurity of adolescence. For all their rough camaraderie, the comfort they take in their sweaty Saturday-morning exertions — “Hydrate, ladies, hydrate!” barks team captain No. 25 (Chrissy Rose) — their world proves not to be an entirely safe place. That lesson is hammered home mournfully for the players in “The Wolves.” By the end of the indoor season that the play chronicles, the nervous chatter will have ceased, and the girls will have faced the most sobering experience of their lives.

Lyons, known mainly for her work in Chicago theater, offers an impressive accounting of her abilities in her Studio directorial debut. The compactness of the space adds a magnitude of intimacy that imbues the play with even more intensity than it radiated in its excellent New York stagings by director Lila Neugebauer at off-Broadway’s Duke theater and Lincoln Center Theater. For Washington, Lyons has also included a new, percussive soundscape by Mikhail Fiksel that, together with some snazzy lighting effects by Paul Toben, helps amplify the tension between vignettes.

There’s no way to applaud any actor in this venture without clapping equally for the other nine. So in addition to the cast members mentioned above, put Lindsley Howard (No. 11), Shanta Parasuraman (No. 8), Maryn Shaw (No. 14) and Anne Bowles (the mom) on the honor roll. Two, four, six, eight, this play you’ll appreciate!

-Peter Marks, Washington Post