The dinner table is rarely just a place to plop your plate and in the case of the bourgeois English family depicted in Nina Raine’s engrossing Tribes, it is an intellectual battlefield. Sloshing wine, banging utensils and talking over one another (all in Wilson Chin’s Real Simple magazine fantasy of a bohemian household set), this family connects through voluble arguments about art, philosophy, linguistics, music and other academic ammunition.
While boorish patriarch Christopher (Michael Tolaydo, in fine form as the dismissive, acidulous family figurehead) pontificates forth, his wife and fellow writer Beth (Nancy Robinette, delicately poised between empathy and sweetly spoken revenge) assiduously chooses her battles and competitive twentysomething siblings Daniel (Richard Gallagher, blistering as the falling-apart, flailing son), an aspiring academic, and opera singer Ruth (Annie Funke, vividly playing an unformed and needy Millennial) vie for Daddy’s attention and blessing.
One family member sits at the edge of the trenches—Billy (James Caverly, a revelation as a complex bundle of seething potential and self-sabotage), the deaf son who was taught to lip read and speak by his parents because they insist that words are the ultimate form of communication.
It is hard enough for hearing people to keep track of the slap-dash, overlapping brainiac one-upmanship practiced by this family—it’s like Tom Stoppard on Ritalin–let alone a non-hearing person. In this volatile household, Billy plays the observer, watching his family interact and barnstorm—trying to get the gist of the arguments rather than every nuance.
Billy’s attempts to break from the loving, strangling bonds of his family and join other clans is the main thrust of Tribes¸ in an impeccable production at Studio Theatre under the direction of David Muse. In a broader sense, it is all about how we hear—or fail to listen to—what is spoken and what is tacit.
Similarly, the play is about inclusion, the tribes we form with their own secret language and made-up rules and rituals that are usually baffling and distancing to those not in the loop. Mr. Muse conveys this by using various forms of communication—speech, sign language, projections of phrases on the wall, glances and facial expressions—to show how much we try to connect and how much we just simply miss or ignore.
Billy thinks his family, with their lacerating debates and silly code words for cigarettes and other taboos, are eccentric but perfectly normal. Then he meets the seductive Sylvia (Helen Cespedes, striking as Billy’s liberator and as an exquisitely aware woman caught between two worlds), who is going deaf, and starts to explore Deaf culture and sign language. It is here that he begins to see his family’s limitations and daily domestic cruelties.
Something clicks in Billy’s head when he falls in love with Sylvia—not a sound, but light and silence. One of the fascinating aspects of Tribes is how it shows the different strata of societies. The deaf from birth (a high rank) Billy is aloft in wonderment and discovery, using sign language and love to communicate for the first time in his life. Sylvia, on the other hand, is not so high up—as a hearing person going deaf, she knows what she is losing and is depressed and confused. “I never knew going deaf would be this noisy,” she confesses to Billy.
Closes February 23, 2014
The Studio Theatre
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2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
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There are echoes of this in Billy’s tribe as well. They think of themselves as superior to other clans—mostly because of their incessant intellectual inquiry and their zeal for being unconventional and nonconformist. Christopher is the champion of this credo, not realizing—or even caring—that insisting Billy and the family not learn sign language (because, in his words, it is a “coarse, primitive” language), he is denying his son an essential and emotional part of his soul.
There is nothing coarse or primitive about the sign language used in the play to express poetry, metaphors and other sophisticated language. Miss Raine’s dialogue is also a treat for the senses, such as having Christopher remark “We’re in a Pinter play!” when dealing with the silences and pauses in conversations between the hearing and the deaf and Billy’s snarky reply to Daniel’s question as to what constitutes pillow talk in the deaf world.
Tribes speaks to a fundamental dichotomy in human wants and needs. We long to belong to a family, a circle that enfolds and includes us and never lets us go. At the same time, we want to be individuals, to feel free to express ourselves. Can we ever have both—to belong and to be one?
Tribes by Nina Raine . Directed by David Muse . Featuring James Caverly, Helen Cespedes, Annie Funke, Richard Gallagher, Nancy Robinette and Michael Tolaydo . Lighting design: Matthew Richards . Sound design: Ryan Rumery . Scenic design: Wilson Chinn . Costume design” Kathleen Geldard . Projections design: Erik Trester . Director of Artistic Sign Language: Tyrone Giordano . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.