The statistics are staggering, and once I started googling, I found myself clicking link after link after link and becoming more and more disheartened at the numbers. The truth is every forty seconds in the U.S. a child is reported missing. Most of the time these children are found and returned home, which I did not know- the fictional lens of television drama and movie often paints a bleaker picture. Less than one percent of those taken are classified as “nonfamily abductions.” There is also an Amber Alert system that has helped locate 957 children since its inception in 1997. And despite all of these statistics, the reality is far more complicated to discuss.
That’s where this production of Mr. Wolf at Single Carrot comes in. Written by Rajiv Joseph, it tells a story of a young woman, Theresa, who is abducted as a child. The only world she knows is with her captor, who is offering her safety, shelter, and a chance at academic advancement. But her world experience is seriously lacking, she doesn’t know what a horse is, or a chocolate bar- but she can draw a diagram of a distant galaxy. Her parents, now divorced, have coped with her disappearance in different ways, but come back together when she is returned safely to their home. But how do you welcome a daughter you don’t know anymore? What if everything is the same, and nothing is the same?
The play itself is disturbing, full of disquietude and moments of discovery. The production by Single Carrot is top-notch. This movable piece has patrons following the actors from room to room as the story unfolds. (Side note- please dress comfortably and with decent shoes, some rooms have limited seating. And before the show begins you are outdoors (it was hot and buggy!)) The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and does a lovely job of making a full circle from Mr. Wolf’s house, to Theresa’s “home”, and back to Mr. Wolf’s house. Co-directors Genevieve de Mahy and Lauren Erica Jackson do a great job of keeping the audience highly engaged, even when the action is not “front and center.”
The central role is Zara Cojocaru as Theresa. Her precocious manner and innocence beyond belief take center stage as she tackles this troublesome role. Zara does an excellent job of accurately portraying a teen, with a god complex, and limited experience- which sounds like an acting exercise gone wrong. She is most endearing with Julie (Ama Brown, her step-mother); to whom she bonds with ease. Her father, played by the always endearing Paul Diem, does a fantastic job of being a man on a mission, who gets his wish fulfilled, and then, has no idea what to do with himself. His agape stares as he sits in shock characterize his role as Michael. His introductory scene as a man just laid-off trying to counsel a woman at the end of her rope is honest and raw and showcases his immense range as an actor.
Phil Gallagher has the distinct award as playing the child abductor, Mr. Wolf. But before you villainize him too early on, he also comes back as a doctor, a police officer, and other manifestations of self that parallel universes have revealed to Theresa. So, that switch- from Mr. Wolf, a deranged professor who takes young girls- to a cop trying to solve missing children’s cases- is astounding. His range is apparent and other-worldly. His most enigmatic moment is on a mic defending himself and asking for a bit of recognition for his part in this. And that speech came off as a bit Trump-esque with its lack of care and concern; but “all about him” attitude at the stem of it.
Ama Brown is the step-mother we all want for ourselves. She is kind and compassionate, nurturing and understanding. She is not perfect, but she apologizes for her mistakes, which is a trait not heralded enough in our society! I loved how gracefully she brought Julie to life, embodying her like an old soul, finding, settling. A mark of good acting is to make it look natural, and Ama does “hold a mirror up to nature,” she is so good I forgot I was watching a play occasionally as I leaned in to draw her breath.
Elizabeth Darby is Hana, Theresa’s mother. She left. She tried to move on- cardinal sin rule in Michael’s book. She returns and wants everything to be the same. She is neurotic and bursting with too much information and thought to contain. She speaks her truths with no filter. She is shameless in her selfless pursuits, and it looks difficult to find footing for this character, but Elizabeth brings her to the forefront, faults in all. Darby does an impossible task of making her understandable, but not necessarily likable.
The stage manager Sarah Hankin and assistant Stage Manager Dylan Mckenzie, have the task of setting, re-setting, and sneaking ahead and behind us each time we move. It seems like quite a task! Costumes by Heather Jackson do not nail down a particular place or time, which is great, because this could take place anywhere. Lighting and Sound design by Chris Rutherford and Caelan Levine has the dual task of story-telling AND signaling the audience to exit each room.
The play was powerful, engaging, and well done. My questions and complaints lie with the story itself and what exactly Rajiv Joseph was hoping to accomplish. It seemed to me so rare that an abducted child falls into a story like this- well cared for and returned unharmed 12 years later. This isn’t the conventional or statistical truth to many missing children. Also, Theresa seems to idol worship her captor, and although Stockholm Syndrome is a real thing, it is hard to watch and wade through to get to the depth of the storyline. Was he trying to put a happy ending on a tragedy that occurs too often? Was he trying to bring to the forefront social injustice and raise awareness? Was he defending (it felt like it at times) the abductor and his reasons for taking young girls? I don’t know. And unless he’s available for discussion, I probably won’t.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Mr. Wolf was a completely captivating performance. Between the astounding acting, the movable pieces of the production, and the problematic characters dealt with in such a realistic and down to earth fashion- it transcends space and time. This is a must see for the Fall- in fact- I will be updating Best Bets immediately and adding this show! Go for the experience and art, stay for the real world conversation afterwards about what you can do in Baltimore to help missing and exploited children. Wow. (I)
Running at Single Carrot out of The Rectory House of St. John’s Church (3009 Greenmount Ave.) through Oct 13th. Running time 90 minutes with no intermission.