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by Karen Topham

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Playwright: Hansol Jung

At: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee, Chicago. Tickets: . Runs through: Aug 18

The Gift Theatre's midwest premiere of Hansol Jung's Wolf Play is like nothing I've ever seen before. Directed by Jess McLeod, this little gem is full of unusual characters, an inventive plot, strong acting, laughter, and real emotion. If it weren't for the fact that its ending made me very angry—an interesting reaction on my part that I can't really discuss without giving things away—I'd go so far as to call it one of the best plays of 2019.

The play centers on an 8-year-old boy whose adopted father ( Tim Martin ) has decided that he's too much to handle and goes online to see if he can give him away. Online, he meets up with a very nice couple he believes will be fine. It isn't until he has signed all of the documents to give the boy away that he realizes that this is a lesbian couple; his homophobic reaction comes a bit too late.

The boy, played by a puppet with dialogue spoken by Dan Lin, claims to be a wolf. Within his mind, he understands the world as a wolf would and responds to it accordingly, which ( as one might imagine ) results in a lot of aggressive behaviors both at home and at school.

His new family ( his "pack" ) consists of his moms, Robin ( Jennifer Glasse ) and Ash ( Isa Arciniegas ), and Robin's brother Ryan ( Al'Jaleel McGhee ). It was Robin whose desperate desire to have a child led to this unusual adoption. Ash, working hard to make a career as a boxer under Ryan's tutelage, was not in such a hurry ( and absolutely detested the fact that someone would give a child away on the web ). But when Ash starts thinking she might want to mother him more than she wants to box, Ryan ( not wanting to lose her ) uses the boy's propensity for violence as a pretext to try to convince his sister that she has made a mistake.

McLeod's direction is excellent here; she not only guides this cast to uniformly strong performances but also makes great use of Arnel Sancianco's fascinating scenic design. The whole ensemble shines: Glasse as a woman with a lot of love to give who feels frustrated when it is not reciprocated, Arciniegas as one who thought she had life mapped out until unexpectedly falling in love with this strange child, Lin as both that child and the narrator ( called Wolf ), McGhee as the generally well-intended brother trapped by his own dreams, and Martin as a man defined by his worst action.

I simply cannot say enough good things about this show. I'd see it again, despite the ending. And about that: I wasn't at all prepared for it to conclude as it did, but maybe the fact that I could get so viscerally and emotionally involved in a play as to hate its ending with such vehemence says something ultimately very positive about Jung's writing overall, the characters she created and the way this company has brought them to life.

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