a theatre, film & pop culture review
Communication is a tricky thing, but its methods and meanings are never more delicate and sinuous than when familial. In Nina Raine’s incisive, Olivier Award-nominated Tribes, language universally excludes rather than unifies, acting as the common divider — not denominator.
All families communicate differently. In some, much goes unspoken, while in others, like Billy’s, everything is said, but nothing is really heard. Tribes shows language as hierarchical: Billy, the deaf son in a hearing family that is verbose verging on virulent, hears everything, but has no voice (literally and figuratively). He’s surrounded by a bunch of overblown egos: a bullheaded and grandiose father (Jeff Perry) who would rather learn Chinese than Sign; a knowing, but oblivious mother (Mare Winningham) more intent on crafting a detective story than a relationship with her son; an overbearing, but emotionally dependent brother (Will Brill) who decries meaning in words, but uses them without reticence, and a spacey sister (Gayle Rankin) who, out of frustration, substitutes music for the words and emotions that she cannot articulate.
It’s not until Billy falls in love with a girl going deaf (Susan Pourfar) that he’s liberated by her ability to sign — his family refused to learn, forcing him to master lip-reading, because they didn’t want his handicap to seem, well, like a handicap. But even as Billy (Russell Harvard, a deaf actor known largely for his part in There Will Be Blood) surges with pent-up resentment, disavowing his family until they learn to sign, he embraces his new autonomy within the deaf community, while Sylvia, deeply grieving for her hearing loss, increasingly resists being defined by her deafness. But in Raine’s play, language determines one’s place not only in society but in the home, and rejecting one form means taking on a whole new identity — and a new tribe.
Raine, with the aid of Daniel Kluger’s intuitive sound design (including a cheekily inserted version of The Jungle Book’s “I Wanna Be Like You”) and Jeff Sugg’s (Chinglish) subtle, poetic projections (supertitles for the sign language appear in various sizes and fonts throughout the playing space) explores both the multiplicities of communication as well as the collisions between its diverse forms. Her insights, like David Cromer’s direction and the performances of the superb cast, are sharp and quick: there’s the vast emptiness of words, music’s inexplicable emotiveness, the palpability of silence, the ceaselessly overlapping chatter of a self-important family converging into a dull roar for the hearing impaired. Imperfect as it is — in her attempt to show the family as a flawed unit, burdens her characters with too many unresolved/explained problems and the final, sentimental scene of reconciliation comes off as forced — Tribes is quick-witted and provocative in the questions it asks about language (but cleverly eludes answering in black and white terms), and Raine’s is a refreshing, vibrant voice with quite a bit to say. Thankfully though, unlike Billy’s family, she understands that over-articulation is another form of disability.