The lights come up as a dark-haired young, Latino - bloodied, bruised, battered - launches into an adrenaline-fueled monolog.
Facing the audience, Abe (Gabe Ruiz) is talking a mile a minute to an unseen clerk in the wee hours at a convenience store. From the torrent we piece together clues - Abe has survived a harrowing event.
From this opening, playwright Ike Holter toggles the audience between puzzlement and certainty as The Wolf at the End of the Block tells its story in increments. This high-energy thriller gradually unfolds details that at each bend make us re-examine what we thought we knew.
Though serious and even tense, The Wolf is never dreary - the pace and light-hearted delivery, the playful banter of the characters, keep it from veering into a diatribe. These are people who manage to extract the joy and happiness when and where they find it, while they can.
The next morning we find Abe awaited by sister Miranda (Ayssette Muñóz) and boss Nunley (Bear Bellinger) at the restaurant where he works, since Abe did not come home last night. He arrives - more lucid but still in shock - and reveals he was attacked in a police bar in an anti-Hispanic hate crime. Ethnic slurs were hurled, fists flew.
Holter takes us deeper: Miranda, a citizen journalist, feeds this crime lead to Frida, renowned TV newscaster. After vetting Abe's recount, Frida decides she will run with the story. Sandra Marquez delivers Frida as a savvy yet jaded reporter - talking in a clip that seems to be ripped right out of The Front Page. The story passes muster as one that will work on TV.
We follow as Holter digs even further: the sister Miranda determines Abe has held back something from Frida - he was drinking more than he said and may have instigated the fight. Frida doesn't care; she will use the part of the story that works for the viewers.
At another point, Nunley, Abe's African-American boss, reveals he has a tape of Abe that may show him stealing - we are never quite sure. We are with Nunley when he enounters the cop James (James Farrugio is perfectly sinister) who may have beaten Abe, and we share Nunley's fear and intimidation.
Against the current turbulent political landscape, the play also examines the role of facts in media, and how motive can affect which truth is revealed, or suppressed.
Having its world premiere, Teatro Vista's The Wolf at the End of the Block is engrossing, well acted and well produced - and is readily recommended. Holter is considered an up and coming writer - at moments he shows a structure and even lyricism along with pragmatic realism. This is the kind of theater we want to see more of. It runs through March 5 at the Victory Gardens Theatre.