I guess the point is that we all belong to tribes.
Billy’s tribe was his insular and disjointed family – his parents, his brother and his sister (all three are young adults). Each of these family members had more than his or her share of quirks and problems, but Billy’s was unique. He was deaf, or close to it, from birth, and always treated (for better or for worse) as special, needing special care or concern.
But Billy meets Sylvia, an attractive young woman whose parents are deaf, and who was born with full hearing but is rapidly becoming deaf as a result of her genetic condition. Sylvia introduces Billy to her community of the Deaf, another and very different tribe, where communication is by signing. Billy has never learned to sign. He communicates with his tribe by lip-reading.
Billy begins his transition from his family tribe, to the tribe of the Deaf. Sylvia begins a different transition, as her remaining hearing starts to fade quickly. Billy’s family tribe, shaky to begin with and isolated, it appears, from the rest of the world, grows shakier, remains isolated, and continues to act like a tribe, protecting itself as best it can.
So goes Nina Raine’s play, “Tribes”, now being performed at Washington’s Studio Theatre, directed by David Muse, the theater’s artistic director. The cast could not be better. Washington veteran actors Nancy Robinette and Michael Tolaydo play the parents with, to put it mildly, unrestrained gusto. Richard Gallagher plays Billy’s brother, a difficult role because of his character’s own medical issues. Annie Funke plays Billy’s uninhibited/inhibited sister with the right amount of spunk. Helen Cespedes, making her area debut, is the perfect Sylvia, an outgoing young woman trapped by her own increasing deafness. And James Caverly, who plays Billy, a Gallaudet University graduate active with the National Theatre of the Deaf, is for so many reasons the perfect choice for this role.
The staging is also special. A one set play, with scenes taking place outside of the family house worked primarily through lighting changes, a portion of the play takes place using ASL (sign language). When the characters sign, their dialogue is shown on the walls of the house (three places, so it can be seen from all sides of the proscenium stage). And, towards the end of the play, when the characters look at each other and don’t know what to say (or when they say something but think something else), their thoughts are posted in the same manner. (At our performance, there was also “open captioning”, which picks up everything being said on stage, to help not only the hearing impaired in the audience, but those of us who sometimes might drift and miss a word or two.)
The script is very crisp, much of it funny, and the play moves right along. (I do have to say, however, that the language is very coarse, and I found that someone what off-putting and hard to reconcile with the story line. And when I say ‘very coarse’, I really mean ‘very, very, very, very very coarse’ – in case you were wondering.)
Well, having said all of this, you would assume that I would conclude that this is a great play, but I don’t. I think in fact it is rather a shallow play about a very important subject. It brings up questions about how the Deaf should be raised and treated – signing or lip reading, isolated or out in the world. It raises questions about how the Deaf feel about themselves, and how these feelings can change. It portrays the differences between someone who was born deaf, and someone in the process of going deaf. All important issues.
But the story line is predictable, and the characters (actually with Billy and Sylvia as possible exceptions) are caricatures of characters. Wonderfully performed caricatures, but caricatures nonetheless.
So, I do recommend seeing the play for the performances, and for the important topics raised. But not for the play itself.
Strange review, you say. Yeah, I know it, but I don’t know how else to put it.