Cleveland Play House’s ‘Mr. Wolf’ is a brilliant play, astounding production
By Bob Abelman
Surely you followed the real-life drama of Michelle Knight who, in 2002, was abducted by Ariel Castro and finally rescued from his Tremont home after spending 11 years in captivity.
Leave it to Cleveland-born playwright Rajiv Joseph to find poetry in such pathology.
His “Mr. Wolf” revolves around a 15-year-old girl who, when she was 3, was abducted and hidden from the world by an astronomer who believes she can unravel the mysteries of the infinite expanses of the universe. By doing so, she will find God and save Humankind.
Rather than being mistreated, Theresa’s intelligence and inquisitive nature are nurtured by her abductor, Mr. Wolf, who sees her as a prodigy and a prophet. Equal parts Stockholm syndrome and genuine affection forge Theresa’s attachment to Mr. Wolf, which is all-encompassing, and after 12 years of isolation, all that she knows.
A play like this coming from Joseph is no surprise, for he has a remarkable proclivity for examining big-ticket issues by way of small-scale stories and unlikely spokespeople.
In “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” — a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist — he exposed the self-destructive nature of the human species by examining the atrocities of the Gulf War and giving voice to a philosophizing feline. His “Guards at the Taj” offered an existential treatise on the human costs of Man’s self-aggrandizement, delivered by two simple-minded 17th century sentries at the Taj Mahal.
In “Mr. Wolf,” the passionate pursuit of astronomy and the infinite possibilities of the universe are counterbalanced by the comparatively infinitesimal heartache of a parent losing a child and the astronomical odds of finding her alive after all these years.
Find her they do, and after some unsavory revelations about Mr. Wolf’s quest for the one true prophet, the story turns its attention to psychological and spiritual healing. The scenes involving Theresa and her parents’ adjustment to their reunification are as tenderly conceived, brilliantly constructed and emotionally engaging as the ones that came before.
The staging for Cleveland Play House production of “Mr. Wolf,” which is the centerpiece of the CPH’s 2016 New Ground Theatre Festival, is sparse, so as to keep our focus on the story and less on the storytelling.
However, director Giovanna Sardelli employs plenty of technological bells and whistles — such as a receding set piece and a rising platform (Timothy R. Mackabee), overtly dramatic lighting (Gina Scherr), and haunting sound design (Daniel Kluger) — to underscore the cold loneliness that resides in the vastness of the space Theresa and Mr. Wolf contemplate, in the isolation of her captivity, in the world of a father who is desperately searching for his child, and in the soul of a mother who has given up hope. The effect is chilling and powerful.
Sardelli delivers a cast whose acting and listening skills are so exceptional that they make it hard to separate the writing from its onstage rendering or shift attention to admire the stagecraft surrounding them.
Juliet Brett — barefoot and a bundle of autistic tendencies, genius eccentricities and sheer intensity — is an incredible, surprisingly endearing Theresa. Her fingers twitch as if engaged in phantom activities. Her eyes, when not avoiding contact, demand it. And her analytical pattern of speech shows no signs of long-repressed and now-foreign emotions, except when Mr. Wolf introduces her to new life experiences and then in the most delightful manner.
John de Lancie, who originated the role of Mr. Wolf in last year’s world premiere at South Coast Repertory in California, anchors this production as well. Never does his Mr. Wolf show anything but genuine affection for his misappropriated mentee and dedication toward their mission, despite an undercurrent to the contrary — which is a fascinating choice by de Lancie and Sardelli. And when Theresa sees Mr. Wolf’s face on the detective who rescues her and the doctor who then examines her, de Lancie manages to be those people but with subtle traces of Mr. Wolf in the mix.
Theresa’s father, mother and stepmother are all people damaged by the trauma of losing a child. But Todd Cerveris, Rebecca Brooksher and Jessica Dickey create rich and complicated characters above and beyond this plot point. Their pain from Theresa’s absence is convincing, but the resultant dysfunction and often comical awkwardness upon her return are remarkable.
Michelle Knight’s dramatic story, which has since been turned into a Lifetime Channel made-for-TV movie, is a fear-inducing survivor’s tale about the evil that lurks in the heart of Man. Joseph’s imaginative “Mr. Wolf” is certainly more uplifting. And by setting its sights on the cosmos and our place in the universe, it is significantly more thought-provoking. CV
WHAT: “Mr. Wolf”
WHERE: Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through April 24
TICKETS & INFO: $20-$90, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 9, 2016.
Lead image: John de Lancie (Mr. Wolf) and Juliet Brett (Theresa) PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni