The Story Behind the Photo: "Mr. Wolf"

Tania Thompson
 | Jan 22, 2021
Mr. Wolf
Emily James, Jon Tenney and John DeLancie in Mr. Wolf by Rajiv Joseph (2015). Photo by Debora Robinson.

About ​Mr. Wolf

When Rajiv Joseph puts pen to paper, he ignites the theatre world. He has thrilled audiences with plays like the Broadway hit Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and now comes his most provocative drama yet—a psychological mystery that will keep you guessing up until the end. The universe is vast, but 15-year-old Theresa seeks to understand how and why it came to be. Her guide in that quest is a man named Mr. Wolf. Now, the only life she has ever known is coming to an end. With the center of her world gone, how will she find her place in it?

For Emily James, Spring 2015 had two major milestones: she graduated from Cal State Fullerton and she made her professional debut in the world premiere of Mr. Wolf by Rajiv Joseph at South Coast Repertory. The play is dark and complicated [see sidebar], but it gave James just what she was looking for. The cast also included John DeLancie in the title role, Jon Tenney as her character’s father, Tessa Auberjoinois as her mother and Kwana Martinez as her step-mom. James selected the above photo as a pivotal moment for her character.

What moment does this depict?

This moment depicts my character reuniting with her beloved rug. In the play, Theresa, played by me, was kidnapped at an early age and raised by a lunatic astronomy professor named Mr. Wolf. In his eyes, he was training Theresa to be the “chosen one,” a person who would one day save the world. He was aware the police would come for him and he has prepared her for that moment. Theresa, being all kinds of brainwashed, has bound her life to Mr. Wolf. He was the only person she has ever known and, though she was trapped, she was content because it was all she knew. She became very attached to the things in the house where Mr. Wolf kept her and had a special relationship with the rug, where she would pace back and forth and crunch her toes into it all day.

Tell us more.

At the beginning of the play, Theresa’s parents and the police finally find her after a 12-year search. Her captor, Mr. Wolf, kills himself and Theresa is left to her own devices in an absolutely terrifying new world. As predicted, she has a rough time in her new reality. She’s experiencing Stockholm Syndrome and sees Mr. Wolf everywhere: as a doctor and as the policeman at the end of the play. She desperately wants to get back to the comforts of her confinement. She misses her art supplies, Mr. Wolf and, especially, her favorite rug. She repeats over and over to her Mom, Dad and stepmom that she wants to go “home.” She gets that wish when a new investigation opens up about other possible abductions and the police officer takes Theresa back to Mr. Wolf’s house to question her.

How did you work to make this moment happen?

Jon [Tenney, who portrayed Theresa’s father] and I always embraced this moment in the play. It was such a relief, after an hour and a half of stress and darkness, to get barefoot on the rug and goof around. In rehearsal, it took me a while to understand Theresa’s thought process in this moment. In the beginning, I expressed overwhelming joy at the sight of my rug. But then, Rajiv Joseph [playwright] and I had a discussion and he insinuated that my emotions were a bit off track. I don’t think he told me what to do outright, but I remember he looked down at the ground in a sort of meditative state and shuffled back and forth. It reminded me of the things that kids do when they are being creative in their own solitary, little worlds. After sitting with that note, I realized that the rug was simply a pacifier for Theresa; she was spending the entire play in fight​-or​-flight mode, overwhelmed by fear and trauma. When she gets to the rug, it’s finally a moment of familiarity for her and she starts pacing again—it’s like a meditation.

What’s the power about this moment?

This is when Theresa’s father connects with his daughter for the first time in the play. Seeing Theresa so happy and at ease with the rug, the Father takes off his shoes and joins her. Before this moment, he could barely look at or speak to her; the emotional toll and pressure to connect with his daughter had been too heavy for him, after spending a dozen years searching for her. It’s a beautiful moment of connection in the midst of the bleakness of their circumstances and it opens the door to more even more connection and healing.