Normally, a feeling of weariness accompanies seeing two productions of the same play so close together. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Studio Theatre in Washington did Tribes, British playwright Nina Raine’s play about a young deaf man’s struggle to be heard, accepted and listened to?
Studio’s production was an engrossing, stimulating excursion into the intellectual battleground of a pretentiously bohemian English family, where words are titular and emotions are groundless unless verbalized. Where does that leave Billy, deaf since birth and never taught sign language because his hearing father has deemed it a “coarse, primitive” language?
At Studio, Billy’s efforts to articulate exactly who he is was conveyed in a beautifully brainy production directed by David Muse, full of heady talk and lithe wordplay.
On the flip side, Everyman Theatre’s stunning production, directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, goes straight to the heart. Here I thought the whole play was about language and then I see Tribes at Everyman and am gob-smacked by how it is about family, about belonging to something and being understood and included.
It was like watching an entirely different play, one that was at once warmer and more risky than prior productions. Which goes to show you, that even the most ennui-laden among us can be reawakened, to see something through new eyes.
A big, rectangular dining room table dominates Daniel Conway’s set, an artful clutter of books, papers, electronics, a piano and other shabby chic detritus befitting a smugly eccentric and smart family. It is here that the clan spends most of their time eating, drinking and working—but most essential of all, fighting.
Nearly everyone pontificates forth on a range of topics, especially patriarch Christopher (James Whalen, playing an academic blow-bag with merry skill), who believes that words are sacred vessels carrying the truth and therefore should be chosen with the utmost care. Christopher’s grandstanding predictably unleashes a torrent of competitive, acidic discussion, particularly between siblings Daniel (Alexander Strain, remarkable as a deteriorating lost boy), a troubled ne’er do well, and Ruth (Annie Grier, splendidly portraying a bright bundle of insecurities), an aspiring opera singer.
While this endless game of learned one-upmanship unfolds, mother Beth (Deborah Hazlett, a gleaming portrait of frayed patience) tries to keep the household together and Billy (the astounding John McGinty), sits at the sidelines trying to keep up. An expert lip reader, Billy nonetheless misses much of the arguments. However, when it comes to reading faces and body language, Billy is quite fluent.
The family’s willy-nilly closeness and dysfunctional interdependence—they can’t live with or without each other—is expressed in the context of this dinner table. It is here they gather, compete and split off from one another. And amid this chaotic community, Billy sits apart, isolated in a pool of light as all the conversation and controversy swirls around him.
The dynamic shifts when Billy meets Sylvia (Megan Anderson), the child of deaf parents who is now going deaf herself. Reluctantly joining the citizenry of the deaf, Sylvia mourns the loss of her hearing self and wonders what other essential parts of her being will dissolve once she is completely deaf. Anderson is electrifying as Sylvia, an irresistible force of nature who pulls you in with her clear-eyed composure. Yet, we also see the ways hearing loss unravels her—the speech that goes from crisp to muddled, the talk she increasingly misses, the growing isolation that envelops her like a shroud.
Yet with Sylvia, sign language is anything but coarse—instead, musical and vivid in its expression of ideas and emotions. She introduces Billy to an intoxicating new world where love and sex and language are all tied together, where communication is gesture and touch, where words are irrelevant. Something clicks in Billy’s head when he falls in love with Sylvia—not a sound, but a great noiseless light suffusing his brain. He realizes what he’s been missing—and what his family has failed to give him.
Closes June 22, 2014
315 West Fayette Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $38 – $60
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Tribes is about inclusion and separation, the families we form through the secret handshakes, code words and intricate alliances designed to keep other people out. Lancisi dexterously conveys this by using various forms of communication—speech, sign language, music, computerized projections of phrases on the wall, glances and facial expressions—to show the many ways we try to “talk” to each other. By the end, it is a wall of noise. For all this so-called communicating, there is so little we actually hear.
What does come through loud and clear is the crazy love this family has for each other and the palpable need to belong. All the characters want to belong to something, to someone. It’s like a fever.
This desire for closeness and connection is delicately, indelibly expressed in the relationship between Daniel and Billy. Both have a disability—Billy’s physical, Daniel’s heartbreakingly mental. In their scenes together, Strain and McGinty powerfully convey the bond between two men the world may see as damaged goods but whom the tribe views as singular treasures. They give you the extraordinary impression they are locked in the same wavelength, physically linked and, especially in the case of Daniel, indistinct and inarticulate when the other isn’t around.
Everyman’s production of Tribes fiercely examines what gives us our voice. Is it our identity, is it our connections? Or is it much simpler—love?
Tribes by Nina Raine . Directed by Vincent M. Lancisi . Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.