With his consuming 85-minute drama The Wolf at the End of the Block, given a compelling Teatro Vista world premiere under Ricardo Gutiérrez’s air-tight direction, Chicago playwright Ike Holter shows he’s gloriously out of step with current trends among big-name, award-winning American playwrights. While like many of them he writes about pressing social issues, here the debilitating effects of police oppression on a majority-nonwhite community like Humboldt Park, he never wastes a moment, never lets his characters dawdle through extended demonstrations of their quirks, never diddles around the edges of his story in search of “interesting” but dramatically irrelevant encounters. He avoids moral schematics and easy sympathy. And most uniquely, he never mistakes forced poesis or overworked metaphors for dialogue.
In short, Holter’s written a play rather than a display. Given recent tendencies, he’ll never win a Pulitzer Prize or MacArthur Fellowship. But most playwrights who have could learn a lot from him.
Holter seems not to fully understand his own achievement. He calls Wolf a thriller, a notion amplified by promotional materials that tout the play’s “escalating mystery” with clues that “spiral into a razor sharp jigsaw.” But Wolf is simply the story of three working-class people—perpetual underdog Abe, his smothering sister Miranda, and his big-hearted boss Nunley—whose lives are upended by violence, in particular the kind of state-sanctioned violence these characters believe stalks them around every corner. Sure, it’s not entirely clear at first who assaulted Abe in a dark alley moments before the play begins. But what really matters is the community’s perception of the attack: no one has any difficulty believing it was an off-duty cop who, out of the blue, called Abe much worse than a spic. These are people trained to see themselves as targets, and dispensable ones at that.
The question that matters to Holter is not who attacked Abe but what, if anything, anyone is going to do about it. At first, the answer seems to be “nothing, as ever.” While Abe’s story is overly familiar to everyone in his circle (Nunley’s uncle, a lawyer, got three years in prison for raising his hands nondefensively when a police officer tackled him), Abe is an unlikely champion of political resistance. He has stumbled through life, drinking too much, losing dead-end jobs, learning early from his father to keep his eyes down in the face of white authority. But with zealous encouragement from Miranda, Abe meets with Frida Vertalo, a television investigative reporter who, in Miranda’s words, is “the biggest brown lady blowing up since Oprah.” If she airs his story, maybe things will change. And more than likely, Abe’s increased visibility will turn him into an even bigger magnet for police harassment. Abe’s conflicted stance in the face of media exposure becomes the play’s defining crisis.
Yet Frida’s passionate interest in Abe’s story is the play’s great misstep. If a single report from Frida could seriously challenge systemic police misconduct—and nothing in the play makes us question everyone’s belief that it might—then she must be a prominent national media figure (her assertion that anyone would kill for a producer’s credit on her piece makes it clear she’s not working for local news). As such, she’s scrupulous, schooling Miranda, “You need to double-check the sources, and the work and get backups, and testimonial, and a lawyer, video, voices, facts.” Yet she’s ready to air Abe’s allegations 48 hours after the attack with no corroborating witnesses, no surveillance video, no filed court case or IPRA charge, not even a medical opinion that his injuries likely resulted from an assault rather than, say, falling down a flight of stairs.
Still, it’s a testament to Holter’s razor-sharp dramatics and Gutiérrez’s breathless pacing that this enormous lapse in plausibility feels like a minor quibble. Perhaps that’s in large part because Holter’s ultimate interest lies not in the actions his characters take to challenge injustice but the ethical compromises they’ll accept—or disguise—in order to achieve that goal. In this complicated, slippery world, a step toward the truth is always compromising. It’s a thrilling human mess. v