Sunday, July 01, 2012


It's always dangerous to see a show after hearing weeks of hype. Expectations are tricky things. But Tribes is every bit as good as everyone says it is.

Billy is the only deaf person in his family. His parents decided years ago to have Billy taught lip-reading rather than sign language to keep him in the mainstream world. Billy's parents are both writers; his father is a pompous know-it-all who claims to debate people for fun but really needs to hold people down. Billy's sister Ruth is an opera singer; his brother Daniel, who is working on his PhD, is schizophrenic.

Looking at this description coldly, it seems that author Nina Raine made some heavy-handed decisions. After all, giving Billy language-oriented parents and a singing sister would seem to over-emphasize any points she makes about Billy's life. And isn't Daniel's schizophrenia maybe one thing too many for a show to take on? In lesser hands, these might be problematic issues; in Raine's hands, they are not. Raine grounds her show in believable humanity and lets any issues take care of themselves.

When Billy becomes involved with Sylvia--who is going deaf and who teaches him sign language--every button in the family becomes pressed. The father looks down on sign as a lesser language and condescends to Sylvia every chance he gets. The mother wonders if she hobbled Billy's life by not teaching him sign earlier. And brother Daniel, who feels closer to Billy than anyone else on earth, is frightened of Billy having a life outside the family.

Between them, author Raine and director David Cromer make Tribes a beautifully theatrical experience. The audience is vividly brought into the family's lives and limits. There are moments--carefully chosen and very well-done--where we, like the family, cannot perceive what is going on.

The one serious limitation of the show is that it is done in the round, so everyone is always seeing someone's back. I feel like I only saw Mare Winningham's face three or four times and so was cut off from much of her performance. If this was a deliberate decision, to have the audience struggle to keep up, it's a problematic one. There's a difference between carefully chosen moments of incomprehension and not knowing what's going on. However, this problem isn't enough to totally destroy play's brilliance.

Jeff Perry as the bombastic father is so convincing that I wanted to slap him. Winningham is, I think, quite good, but as I said, I didn't see much of her performance. Nick Westrate and Gayle Ranking, as the Billy's brother and sister, are both quite effective. The most outstanding performance, however, is given by Susan Pourfar as Sylvia; she manages to be both vivid and subtle, strong and heart-breaking.

Tribes is as good as they say. It's running through September 2.

(Fifth row near a wall; tdf ticket.)

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