Billy’s family is having another ferociously intense “conversation” and he has little clue exactly what it is about. Billy (Russell Harvard) is the only deaf member of a family that chose to neither learn, nor teach Billy how to sign, lest they validate his status as a handicapped person and relegate him to a tiny community of self-pitying second-class citizens. The adult son of two academic middle aged parents, his living at home is far more acceptable that the return of his siblings to the nest they once let.
Father Christopher (Jeff Still) engages on a continual rant about words and class and the role people – his family in particular – should have in the world. Daniel (Will Brill) rushes into the breach to challenge his father for his elitism and intransigence. Daniel’s mental health begins to deteriorate following the latest failed romantic relationship. He spends his days trying to quiet the voices in his head by occupying his mind with this thesis. Christopher, in truly form of not acknowledging the actually problem, insists Daniel needs o find a job and stop smoking pot. Ruth (Gayle Rankin), the lone daughter in this tight knit clan, is also newly single and trying very hard at finding herself. At present, she is hoping her calling is opera. Finally Mother Beth (Lee Roy Rogers) is the consummate mother and housewife, making the best peace no matter which combination of inflamed family members are making verbal and emotional warfare upon the other.
One night, after an especially truculent dinner with his family, Billy does out to a club and meets a girl Sylvia (Susan Pourfar). She’s clever, ironic and pretty. She signs perfectly, but she is in fact a hearing person that is slowly going deaf, the daughter of deaf parents. Sylvia soon discovered that Billy is exceptionally good at reading lips. Despite the fact she has a boyfriend, a spark ignites for both of them.
Billy tells his family about Sylvia as soon as they begin dating. They become immediately fearful when they learn she has been teaching Billy how to sign. It is only with Sylvia around that Billy begins to realize exactly how much he has been missing. Ironically, being around Billy’s family - people who are constantly carrying on in an endless parade of banter and verbal jousting – is exactly what Sylvia, a girl who is losing her hearing, longs for. Which world will Billy chose; which one will Sylvia chose; and can they even be happy in the same world now that Billy’s eyes are open to the possibility of using a real language.
Tribes is a wonderful play. It is intellectually rigorous and emotionally draining. This intensely complex drama is among precious few plays I have even that tackle an array of issues head on – thoughtfully, thoroughly, respectfully and completely. Will Brill's character gradual loss of metal stability is nicely paralleled with Sylvia's diminishing hear. It allows for these characetrs to bond through mourning the loss of part of themselves.Father Christopher is completely committed to the idea of protecting his son Billy from the stigma of having a handicap, while tenaciously ignoring the fact that his son is deaf, that Billy could never be a part of the hearng world the way he is, and by trying to protect him from one cruel world, he has banished his son to a life where he truly belongs to no community at all.
For anyone aware of the role they personal play in their family dymanic, the situation Billy is in will hit close to home. Billy's family's choice to not learn sign language or eeven teach him, keeps Billy in a lonely awkward box that they call protection, but is actually isolation. This is a family that is obsessed with expressing themselves, as loudly and as frewuently as they like, yet they deny any form of sophistication expression from someone they supposedly love.
Another circumstance that I identified with intimately is the situation when you - as the only other, or minority in the room - become the walking encyclopedia of "X". The insensitivity that Billy's family comes at Sylvia when they finally meet her, as if she is an oject to be questioned and prodded and examined and dissected - I wonder how often people simply do not realize they are even doing it.
With a first act at is a touch long, Tribes succeeds in honoring each character with a journey and a unique and authentic voice, while still paying homage to the family and importance of family. Outstanding cast. Truly well done.
Nina Raine’s Tribes is currently playing through April 14, 2013 at:
The Mark Taper Theatre
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Photos by Craig Schwartz