This monologue, by a woman from the deep south of the US who thinks she is part wolf, takes in the stretch of her troubled life and ends with the Northridge earthquake of 1994. The play, small in itself, carries its own devastating and seismic power.
Maxine (Clare Latham) has a series of flashbacks that take in her progression from an abused and feral girl, beaten by her father, abandoned by her mother and left to skin rabbits, into a woman embroiled in a drug cartel and capable of dead-eyed violence.
“We ain’t never innocent, not even when we’re born,” she says. “We know iss all murder and lies from when we first open our eyes.”
Latham’s performance is utterly arresting, never rushed despite the febrile story she tells. Her delivery carries an innocence alongside the graphic sex and violence, and she holds us breathless over the course of the play, which is performed straight through and gathers a compulsive momentum. Her story is partly an angered growl against the world’s iniquities but also a reclaiming of sorts – a need to describe her pain but also narrate the gleaming moments of love and joy.
Ché Walker, writer and director, manages to make it intimate and epic and his script is rich and literary without being florid. Sheila Atim composes the music and with Bethany Gupwell’s lighting and John Leonard’s sound design, builds a strong atmosphere. Latham speaks from the nooks and crannies of Amy Jane Cook’s scorched-earth set, which has a crack running down its centre to prefigure the final earthquake.
Her story takes in bigger world politics, from the Iran-Contra affair of the Reagan era to the 1992 Los Angeles riots sparked by the Rodney King video footage. None of this feels extraneous but feeds into Maxine’s life story and adds texture to its exploration of what it means to be a poor, white, disfranchised woman in the US. It is also a study of being a woman in a violent world and what this violence does to her humanity.
Her sudden transformations into a wolf, which signal her rage but also her power, are left turns into magicrealism that might have seemed strained but are mesmerising here. She has an animal femininity reminiscent of Angela Carter’s wolf women whose skins are licked off to reveal fur beneath, and there are also echoes of Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run With the Wolves.
This fairytale element is combined with the grit and gore of the story’s southern gothic and together it creates a heady effect. If the lockdowns turned the monologue into an overfamiliar form, Wolf Cub remoulds it into something new, exciting and dangerous again.