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November 18, 2012

Crying Wolf

Psychological disintegration, paranoia & jealously take center stage in this intense production of new play “Wolves”

By Felicia Feaster

  • Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus

Local playwright-done-good, Steve Yockey, returns with “Wolves,” a dark and feral tale of love, loss and big-city existentialism.

An ax-wielding Ben confronts the narrator (his own conscience or the devil?) in the play An ax-wielding Ben confronts the narrator (his own conscience or the devil?) in the play "Wolves" at Actor's Express.

Give a man an ax and he’s ten feet tall.  Even the diminutive, wired and boyish local actor Clifton Guterman becomes bone-chillingly scary when in possession of the instrument that does great and gory harm in Los Angeles playwright Steve Yockey’s nasty little psychological yarn about paranoia, sexual jealousy and loneliness, “Wolves,” at Actor’s Express ( through Dec. 2.

A formerly Atlanta-based playwright, Yockey has again and again brought his work back to town including as a one-time visiting artist in residence at Emory University. He has good reason to return, with a supportive theater community, a superb Atlanta talent base and audiences sophisticated enough to embrace his darkly comic vision of human nature.

The play opens with Ben (Guterman) in knit cap and skinny jeans, gently strumming his guitar, a tamed and gentle creature adoringly watched over by a statuesque brunette with a sadistic gleam in her eye (Kate Donadio), who goads Ben toward increasingly menacing behavior. Described as the play’s narrator, as “Wolves” progresses, her role becomes complicated: is she an organizing omniscience or just the ricochet of Ben’s increasingly manic thoughts pinging around in his brain?

In terse exposition -- and grinning like a malevolent cross between June Cleaver and a very perky, pulled-together Satan -- the narrator gives us Ben’s backstory. He’s a loner and outsider who’s moved from small town to big city, but still painfully isolated -- holed up in his apartment with an ex-lover-turned-platonic-roommate Jack (Brian E. Crawford). Ben’s fear of the outside world appears to have gone nuclear and, as a result, Jack is going stir crazy, chafing under the yoke of Ben’s agoraphobia.  When Jack makes a move to hit the town, or at least the local bar, Ben is apoplectic, railing about the forest, the trees, the animals, the danger...the wolves.

Isolation can do terrible things to a person and it has stricken Ben with a paranoid fear that the city is not simply dangerous, but a thick wilderness harboring devouring wolves, which appear to be manifestations of his internal fears. When Jack returns to the apartment with a charming, slinky, powerful-looking pick-up (Joe Sykes), Ben cries wolf.

Sykes is one of the best things about “Wolves,” a contradictory muscled-up male with a wounded heart, who eventually recoils in horror at the nasty business that Jack and Ben get up to with that ax. For a character whose trajectory is relatively abbreviated, Sykes has the most complexity and gives a deeper vision, in Yockey’s play, than his portraits of Ben and Jack, who remain somehow less human than their victim. Playfully, or perhaps provokingly nicknamed “Wolf” by Jack, Sykes manages to move between threatening, pitiful and lovable and he brings a humanity to a play that can occasionally veer into theatrical affectation.

“Wolves” is fascinating stuff supported by a top-notch cast and minimalist staging that leaves the psychological disintegration of the characters to take center stage in Melissa Foulger’s astute direction.

Darkly funny, creepy and richly entertaining, “Wolves” may strike a chord with anyone who has ever felt the existential chill of big city life, the sense of solitude despite the masses, and a feeling of conspiracy only magnified by isolation.


Steve Yockey's original play, "Wolves," is on stage at Actor's Express through Dec. 2. For info and tickets: