(Review by Tulis McCall)
Nina Raine is a fortunate playwright. She could not have asked for a better production that this very fine offering, directed by David Cromer.
Billy (Russell Harvard) is a young deaf man who was born into a hearing family in England. Years ago the doctors advised that Billy not learn sign language, but to learn to lip read and speak instead. He has lived his life away from deaf people, with whom he could communicate fluently if he only knew how, and mixed in with hearing people. In particular he is mixed in with his family whose speech pattern resembles a lightning storm. It is difficult for us to keep up with this cacophony so one can only imagine how Billy is faring.
On the night in question Billy has returned home from University, which means that his brother Daniel (Will Brill) has to clear his stuff out of Billy’s room. Their parents Christopher (Jeff Perry) and Beth (Mare Winningham) are arguing, which is their normal means of expression, and the hearing children, Daniel and Ruth (Gayle Rankin) are keeping up as best they can. Billy’s role seems to be the observer. He can read lips, but it is clear that this family argues with a 360 degree spread, so Billy must fill in what he cannot “see”.
Billy meets a new girl Sylvia (Susan Pourfar) soon after returning home and we watch him fall in love. Not only does he love this gal, he loves that she signs because she was born into a deaf family. Something clicks in Billy’s head and it has no sound. Instead it has the fluidity and poetry of silence. When Billy brings Sylvia home to meet the folks, the family is so threatened by Sylvia and what she represents that the evening descends into a near fistfight over what way of communication is superior. Billy’s family, particularly Christopher, believes in words as the supreme form of communication, and when Sylvia does not back down from his unprovoked attack, it throws this tightly wound and self referential gene pool into chaos.
This scene ends the first act and is a great set up for something to come. But in the second act Ms. Raine seems to lose sight of the conflict she has created so well and instead heads off in a few different directions. Billy decides he will no longer speak with his family until they learn sig language. Billy and Sylvia are challenged by her deterioration into the deaf world. Billy’s job as a court lip-reader becomes jeopardized. Daniel stops taking his meds and reverts back to a stuttering, frightened individual. And the entire family realizes that it was Billy who was keeping them grounded all along. The story is watered down so much that when the play ends, the audience doesn’t realize it is over until the cast assembles for a curtain call. There are moments in this play that are nothing short of thrilling. The fact that they are not allowed a resolution to match their worth is disappointing.
David Cromer guides these actors with extraordinary skill and precision. The set by Scott Pask and the lights by Keith Parham have transformed the Barrow into an almost child-like setting of images. Your imagination is invited to dance and it accepts without asking permission. The cast is nothing short of glorious, and between them all they have created a vibrant story that outweighs the lack of cohesion in the second act.
Nina Raines succeeds in escorting us into a world that few of us know – and is this not the purpose of theatre? That which most of us take for granted becomes the abnormal in this world. When hearing is assumed its precious gifts are overlooked. Our listening becomes an act of waiting for the other person to stop talking. When we are forced to pay attention, however, the ball game takes on a whole new dimension.
"Smart, lively and beautifully acted."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Spirited and provocative drama."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"'Tribes' is pitch-perfect."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Under the doesn't-miss-a-trick direction of the excellent David Cromer, a superb six-person cast mines every ounce of humor and feeling in this enthralling new work."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"Such fine ensemble acting gives wonderful life to 'Tribes,' which is a drama well worth hearing in more ways than one."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
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