It’s billed as a thriller, but Theatrical Outfit’s The Wolf at the End of the Block is less a drama about who done it (although that is certainly an intriguing element) than the exact circumstances and gray shadings of all those directly and indirectly involved. Running through April 24 at Balzer Theatre, Ike Holter’s play doesn’t always function as neatly as it could but it’s a topical and thought-provoking work.
Abe (Matt Mercurio), a Latin-American resident of the Rightlynd neighborhood of Chicago, is the crime victim. As he addresses the audience in the first scene, we see cuts and bruises on him, a streak of stained blood on his face. He is incredibly disheveled. After drinks at a bar the previous evening, he says he was beaten up later that night by a cop. The next morning, he is late for his job working for a restaurant owned by Nunley (Anthony S. Goolsby). Abe’s younger sister Miranda (Erika Miranda), who lives with him, is concerned that he didn’t come home and when she sees him wearing clothes from yesterday, realizes all is not right.
Once Abe has confessed what happened, Miranda reaches out to Frida (Maria Rodriguez-Sager), an investigative reporter she idolizes. Frida is savvy at her job, able to make determinations based on a few minutes of time with her subjects. She may have some reservations about some of Abe’s details but does feel it’s a vital story to get out in front of a live TV audience. “I am trying to be your voice,” she tells Abe.
What seems like a fairly cut-and-dried case, though, turns more complex as Frida pries more. At first Abe says he has gone out for a drink and then there’s an implication he had several. Miranda does her own amateur sleuthing and finds out a few more details.
The Wolf at the End of the Block, which runs for 100 minutes without an intermission, is as part of a planned seven-play cycle in Holter’s Rightlynd Saga, set in Chicago’s fictional 51st ward. The best known of Holter’s plays is probably exit strategy, the second in the series, which True Colors Theater staged several seasons ago.
This play premiered in Chicago in 2017 and is making its Southern premiere with Theatrical Outfit in only its third professional staging.
Playwright Holter certainly knows Chicago. He nails the city vibe and the tension between its citizens of color and cops. Mark Kincaid appears later as a police officer who may know some details about the case and has a chilling scene with Nunley.
The playwright has dubbed this work as a neo-noir, with something of a cynical antihero at its center, some shady moral choices and some humor. (With material this dark, however, the laughs may seem welcome but they are largely eclipsed by the darker moments.)
As directed by Addae Moon, the company’s associate artistic director, the acting here is quite forceful, especially Mercurio, who has recently moved to the area and has been seen in Tyler Perry’s The Have and the Have Nots and will appear in Paul Schrader’s next film, Master Gardener. His Abe is complicated and proud, one moment defiant about standing up for himself and the next letting his armor down with his boss.
Wolf at the End of the Block is discovered with fully-realized characters. I really liked the dynamic between Abe and Miranda, who has lived with her brother without contributing much of anything. As for Nunley, he has his own demons from the past and sense of distrust.
Wisely, Holter never simplifies any of his five characters. The role of the hardened Frida could be a mess. She is a complicated woman who wants to help her community and make a difference at her job, but she has had to make some tough professional decisions. It helps that Rodriguez-Sager is able to humanize and make us understand the character.
Most of the action here takes place in alleys or construction sites or in dim bars, and Nick Battaglia’s set seems entirely real, with graffiti on walls, debris spilling out of trashcans and stray cigarette butts here and there amid the cold Chicago outdoors.
As a play, though, The Wolf at the End of the Block can feel somewhat inert. It doesn’t always have the theatrical feel it needs. A pivotal scene with Abe, Miranda and Frida has some impassioned speeches and character development but it lasts for what seems like a half-hour. This is a drama that, at least in this version, almost relies exclusively on its monologues and character-rich text without taking advantage of any kind of crafty, innovative staging. Much of what happens in the play can be seen as a slow-burn, with an emphasis on the slow. Nonetheless, it’s certainly a play that gets a lot right.
Although I did watch the company’s romantic Bright Half Life from earlier this year as a streaming version, the last play I saw in person at Theatrical Outfit was a spectacular 2019 staging of The Laramie Project. ironically, The Laramie Project and The Wolf at the End of the Block both deal with hate crimes, but Wolf — with its characters not knowing who to trust and wary of those in charge — is its own piece of work and boasts real insight about the world as it is today.
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Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.
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