Playwright Steve Yockey, whose “Octopus” was staged a few years ago at the Phoenix Theatre, again tells a story of psychological pain in a way best suited for the stage.
The tale is inspired by the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” but is more concerned with the terrors of mental illness than getting sweets to your grandmother.
Small-town Ben (Jason Gloye) has moved to a big city. As a young gay man, he should find it easier there, but encounters with predatory personalities have him seeing his habitat of high-rises as a dark forest, full of ravenous beasts.
Fortunately, he has found Jack (Nate Walden), an attractive young man in a red hoodie, and at first they have their own safe place in the midst of the urban “woods.” But Jack wants to go out, and Ben is afraid for him, for their security. Despite warnings and pleadings, our character in red ventures into the dark. And he brings home a wolf (Jeff Martin).
Guiding us through the story, and providing the voices in Ben’s head, is our narrator (Lucinda Phillips). After some jarring interruptions in the early scenes, she keeps the story moving, no matter what the cost or circumstances. It’s this feeling that we are carried along in what happens that brings this drama its true horror.
The clever minimalist stage setting has masking-tape “walls” that living characters cannot cross but prove fragile otherwise. There are just a few props, including an axe.
And lots of blood.
The play is an interesting examination of the mental condition, “folie a deux,” or shared delusion. Its tragic acts do nothing to challenge the conventional wisdom that the mentally ill are murderously violent. It appears that Ben is to some degree schizophrenic and paranoid and Jack a co-dependent in the worst way.
These conditions taint their pursuit of love, making it inevitable that, as the narrator warns us, there will be no happy ending.
While acting and staging are excellent, the play itself could have been better-written. While the narrator does a great job of showing us what the voices in Ben’s head say to him so we better understand his afflictions, many of her audience interactions are annoyingly unnecessary.
We do not need to be spoon-fed the plot, and in scenes when she could actually add context to the story, she is sadly silent.
While there are hints at Ben’s previous life, a glimpse into exactly how and why he left his small hometown and ended up in “the big city” would be helpful to flesh out his character and explain how his mental disease progressed to the point at which the show begins.
We could also use some insight into Jack’s character, as his feelings for and desire to leave Ben are constantly in conflict, yet never explored – such as why he would purposely taunt Ben by bringing home “the wolf” when he seems aware of how far into madness Ben has slipped.
Jack may have been intended to play the role of Little Red Riding Hood, but his actions show him as more the wolf in Grandma’s clothing.
The phrase, “trigger warning,” could apply to this drama, with its raw and arguably exaggerated portrayals of mental dysfunction, but then it could start a conversation about what can happen if such problems are left untreated.
“Wolves” plays through Feb. 28 at 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis. Call 317-685-8687 or see tots.org.
John Belden is former arts editor of the Daily Reporter. He lives in Irvington. You can reach him at email@example.com