Mr. Wolf Theatre Review – A “Wolf” Stalks Carefully in Orange County

Mr. Wolf (John de Lancie) proclaims his outrage against the world

(Costa Mesa, CA) April, 2015 – Losing a child to a kidnapper is a parent’s worst fear. The uncertainty creeps and burrows in their psyche until a number of painful results come forth: anger, rage, guilt, insanity and sorrow. But which is more horrifying: a child that continues to be missing or when a child is found and the family bond between the parents and child is never the same again? Award-winning playwright Rajiv Joseph explores these issues in his latest work, “Mr. Wolf,” which serves as the finale to South Coast Repertory’s 51st season at the Julianne Argyros Stage.  Although he briefly utilizes a tired cliché in the second act, Joseph’s script still possesses a multilayered dimensionality, which matches the brilliance of the actors.    

 

For twelve years, Theresa (Emily James) has been prisoner to kidnapper Mr. Wolf (John de Lancie), an astrology professor who is seeking “a prophet” to rescue the human race from intellectual mediocrity. But the relationship becomes less like prisoner and captive and more like a teacher and a pupil. Theresa’s intellect skyrockets as she maps out the cosmos and pontificates the nature of God. But when the authorities finally discover her, Mr. Wolf kills himself and Theresa is now in the custody of her natural father, Michael (Jon Tenney), who has never given up on the search of his lost daughter and has a meticulous methodology in coping with the absence. Also with Michael is Julie (Kwana Martinez), his second wife whose own daughter was abducted six years earlier and is trying to maintain her emotional equilibrium over the loss. But the trio’s efforts to heal are made even more unstable when Michael’s blue-blood ex-wife Hana (Tessa Auberjonois) returns after abandoning her husband years before, threatening to tear everyone’s life apart. And through all this, Theresa still sees the image of Mr. Wolf whenever she meets certain key players, including a kind doctor and an impatient FBI agent (also played by de Lancie), which bends the girl’s mental fabric of reality even more. 

Michael (Jon Tenney) meets Julie (Kwana Martinez)

The themes regarding child abduction can be an intense, draining topic for any kind of dramatic medium, whether it would be a novel, screenplay or play. But Joseph’s sharp dialogue explores the tragedy of the story without sucking the energy from the audience regarding the pain these characters go through. And Director David Emmes’s deft pacing beautifully keeps the duration a half hour below the projected 2 1/4 hour limit. Emmes’s and Joseph’s talents are a good combination for this psychological drama, which is equaled by Nephelie Andonyadis’s mercurial set design which transforms from Mr. Wolf’s book-lined library to Michael’s dreary house, with the background of the starry universe behind all, serving as a reminder of Theresa’s genius. But Joseph commits a huge mistake in the second act that has been used many times on film, TV and theatre: The alpha female emotionally emasculating the male counterpart. In the case of “Mr. Wolf,” Hana uses her rich position to get her way, forcing Michael to acquiesce. Although this is done off-stage—the result of the power play is revealed only through Julie’s dialogue, and Michael (who is FAR from a beta male) still loathes Hana afterwards—it’s a tiresome cliché’. It would have been more original for Michael to basically maintain his conviction by indicating that he will fight Hana for Theresa’s custody and not leave Julie. Or perhaps the playwright could have kept it ambiguous if Michael submitted to Hana or not. Still, Joseph doesn’t do this and creates a major flaw in what would have been a perfect psychological drama.

Michael (Jon Tenney) confronts Hana (Tessa Auberjonois)

Regardless of the mistake Joseph makes, all of the actors shine gloriously on the stage. The chemistry between the two leads—James and de Lancie—is truly a phenomenal sight to behold. James gives the best example of a character who suffers from Stockholm Syndrome that has ever been performed on stage and screen. She loves Mr. Wolf, the object of her obsession, in order to survive while he lived and to deal with the isolation after he dies. James’s emotional ranges move with incredible fluidity from guardedness to brief glimpses of compassion for Julie…which frighteningly changes to cold, analytical cruelty (learned from Mr. Wolf) when she tries to destroy Julie’s hope in finding her own daughter. It’s a bravura performance that is matched only by de Lancie’s portrayals of all three characters. His Wolf is an egotistical, charismatic killer whose acuity and obsession over Theresa is a fascinating picture of pure evil. But when he portrays the sympathetic doctor with nuanced kindness and the determined FBI agent with clever humorous touches, this theatre/TV/film veteran once again harnesses his skills as a profound artist who can transform into any diverse character with incredible ease on stage, which is a true testament of his talents.

Mr. Wolf (John de Lancie) shares a final moment with Theresa (Emily James)

Tenney does something quite fascinating with Michael. At first, when he first meets Martinez’s Julie, his behavior regarding his rules on how to deal with loss has elements of obsessive/compulsive disorder meets Asperger’s Syndrome. He is truly a broken man in the beginning, which is hidden under the sense of order he has created. However, when he marries Julie and meets his own daughter after 12 years, Tenney beautifully shows Michael’s agony in every scene, especially utilizing a type of a painful silence that is wonderfully shown with his eyes. But he also shows much power and strength during his confrontation with Hana. He is on fire as he brings forth incredible courage with his dialogue that has actually resulted in an applause in one case. It’s just a shame Joseph didn’t deliver on Michael’s burgeoning strength in the end.

 

Martinez’s Julie is filled with tightly wound tension regarding every decision she is trying to make in terms of how to deal with her loss, but also trying to make her second marriage work with Michael. Martinez’s warmth for Michael and Theresa is truly tender and heartbreaking, but she avoids being the victim of the circumstances regarding her loss, especially at the end when she prays for Mr. Wolf’s other victims because “Nobody said a prayer for them. Somebody should.” A remarkably benevolent performance by Martinez. And then there is Auberjonois, who flawlessly illustrates another type of evil in “Mr. Wolf”:  prideful self-indulgence. Auberjonois masterfully shows Hana’s hypocrisy and duplicity when in one scene, she manipulates Michael for her own means and swears out “Jesus f***ing Christ” a number of times, and then in another scene, she prays the rosary in bed, thanking God for the discovery of her daughter. Auberjonois’s behaviors and actions superbly capture the essence of a privileged, selfish, “progressive” pseudo-Catholic---the type of “practitioner” who gives actual devout Catholics, as well as the entire religion, a bad name and reputation. A nice touch by both Auberjonois and Joseph.

 

“Mr. Wolf” was a labor in love not only for Joseph, but also for SCR. This work debuted during the NewSCRipts series, and was then heavily revised for last year’s Pacific Playwright’s Festival. The final result on the Julianne Argyros Stage proves that SCR will continue to produce the finest in new works as long as the theatre thrives in Orange County.       

 

Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, journalist and voice over artist.

Mr. Wolf runs from April 12-May 3, 2015

South Coast Repertory: Julianne Argyros Stage

655 Town Center Drive

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

Photos by Debora Robinson 

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