Nina Raine’s play Tribes builds on the premise that a family is like a tribe, an intensely loyal, often contentious group of people who share a language, rules, rituals, customs, and sense of humor. Families can be quite insular, and, like tribes everywhere, suspicious of the customs, rites, and values of other tribes. So what happens, her play asks, when one member of a family, beloved as he may be, is not only profoundly different, but also begins to let that difference set him apart from the tribe?
Billy (Tad Cooley) is deaf, and has been from birth. The other members of his family are not only not deaf, but hyper-invested in language and communication. Conversation is both art and weapon in this tribe, with verbal nuance communicated as much through tone of voice as through the content of the words themselves. Billy’s mother Beth (Laurie Klatscher) patiently taught him to both lipread and speak as a child, so he can pick up on most of what people say if he can see them, but the irony, satire, and humor conveyed by vocal tone and volume are lost to him. He’s never really “in” on the conversation. Moreover, his father Christopher (John Judd) took an early stance against Billy’s learning sign language, out of his conviction that sign language would make Billy’s deafness his identity and separate him from his family and their values and culture. As a result, Billy occupies an in-between space, neither fully part of his own “tribe’s” world nor fully integrated into the mainstream deaf community.
When the play opens, all of the adult children have moved back into the parental home, and tensions are high. Billy is home from university; his older sister Ruth (Robin Abramson) is going nowhere with her ambitions to be an opera singer; his older brother Daniel (Alex Hoeffler) has recently been dumped by his girlfriend and has vague intellectual ambitions that manifest themselves in jargony nonsense he calls his “thesis.” At a fundraiser for a deaf charity Billy meets Sylvia (Amanda Kearns), who was born hearing to deaf parents, but is herself now gradually losing her ability to hear. Sylvia cannot lipread, so Billy begins to learn to sign, and his newfound ability to communicate richly with Sylvia through sign language reveals to him how impoverished his relationship with his family has been. A series of crises small and large ensues (I don’t want to give too much of the plot away) that reveal how dependent and interdependent the members of this family’s “tribe” are on each other.
The production at City Theatre is visually stunning: Narelle Sissons’s set archly captures the art- and language-rich environment Billy’s family inhabits (books are everywhere), and Mike Tutaj’s sound and media projections link the world of signs and the world of aurality in ways that give us pause to reflect on how much information comes to us through our ears. Tad Cooley is utterly convincing as the deaf Billy, and Amanda Kearns’s Sylvia is as good at calling the other characters on their bullshit as she is at evoking our heartfelt sympathy for the panic and sadness she feels as her ability to hear disappears. Klatscher, Judd, Abramson, and Hoeffler fill out this ensemble with strong, believable performances, although at times the storytelling takes a backseat to pace: in places, it’s hard to keep up with what is happening emotionally and psychologically within the scene. Even when it’s hard to follow, that emotional and psychological complexity is one of the play’s strengths. Unfortunately, the production ends on a sentimental note that doesn’t feel quite true to what has come before; director Stuart Carden seems to have shied away from what might have been a more ambiguous and less “happy” ending.
Tribes does a particularly good job of revealing the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that operates around people with disabilities, and in particular of examining how the deaf community (which, as Sylvia observes, itself feels exclusive and insular from the inside) forges a politics of identity around deafness and signing. Christopher’s fears about how the ability to sign might impact his son are not unfounded, but at the same time he deludes himself that because Billy can read their lips and answer as if he has heard, he fits in seamlessly with the rest of the family. Some of the most poignant and memorable moments in the play are those in which we see the family habit of steamrollering past Billy’s need for inclusion; they love him, of course, and they think they hold him in their collective embrace, but they are perpetually unaware of how much of the family’s life and culture is unavailable to him. As a result, Tribes offers much to consider about how parents and siblings pattern their lives when one child has fallen, to borrow Andrew Solomon’s title, “far from the tree.”