A disorienting, wild cacophony of verbiage swirls across the stage the moment we encounter the fractious family at the center of Nina Raine’s “Tribes.”
Sitting (barely) at their dinner table, this London family consists of an ex-academic paterfamilias Christopher rucking up the intellectual waters as his wife Beth feeds, re-states and mediates; their three adult children crowding the family home, two of them to Christopher’s annoyance.
As the dust settles, as the audience catches our breath and our bearings, we realize one member of the family has not been part of the verbal jousting. Deaf from birth, Billy has been raised to lip-read and speak by his folks. What he lacks is a language of his own.
That is about to come, and it cracks the entire family’s world wide open as Billy finds and falls for Sylvia.
Written with complexity, vigor and finely honed wit, this play about families, belonging, deafness, sound, silence and language receives a dazzling regional debut at the Kitchen Theatre.
Billy and Sylvia meet cute at the outskirts of a party. The daughter of deaf parents, she is fluent in sign language and encourages Billy to learn it; at the same time, she is losing her hearing week by week.
Mum, Dad, sister Ruth (aspiring to be a singer), and especially brother Daniel (flailing) all have an abundant, protective love for Billy; they also don’t expect a true independence of him, expecting this sudden romance to fail.
Instead, Billy’s world bursts wide open, sending him on a head-on collision with the choices his family made for him, and in some ways, against him.
Juicily naturalistic, while laced with slicing dialogue, Raine uses the well-mined form of the family play to launch into a virtual metaphysics on hearing, sound, music and languages. Projections provide not only translations of what Billy and Sylvia sign but at times take on their own life, even at one point continuing the conversation without the signing. In Ari Herzig’s fluid and lively projection design, letters dance, Mozart sound-waves crest, a separate world hovers, interwoven with the earth-bound, voice-bound pedestrian.
Raine is working densely with deafness and disability in general: she dramatizes the important cultural distinctions between those who become disabled at birth, and those who acquire a disability. To the first it is their given world, to the second group it involves a crisis of loss. Politics, culture, the legitimacy of claiming a language come under withering attack by Christopher in the delightful scene of Sylvia comes to dinner; yet, Sylvia has her own issues within her “tribe.”
M. Bevin O’Gara directs this collision of egos and understandings with aplomb on an arena set of scruffy middle-class domesticity by Cristina Todesco, subtly lit by Annie Wiegand (herself deaf), the strong sound design by Arshan Gailus. Beth Applebaum serves as director of artistic sign language.
Karl Gregory invests the angst-driven Daniel with a cutting outer shell that crumbles into a crushing vulnerability. Adrianne Krstansky plays Beth with a blend of playfulness and matter-of-factness overlaying a fierce independent streak that lays so close to the skin, the acting just astonishingly disappears into behavior. Dean Robinson knives into Christopher, throwing up barrages of language in self-defense, then retreating with curmudgeonly snarls. Juliet Kimble as Ruth turns from smart-ass to geniality as the mood takes her.
Jasmine Carmichael plays Sylvia with a bright flair and nimbleness, allowing for a current of despair as she faces her loss.
At the shining center of the show is deaf actor (and assistant director) James Caverly. He inhabits Billy with wide-open warmth and vibrancy, in a virtuosic and magnetic performance.