David Cromer is an extraordinarily astute director (Our Town, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and When the Rain Stops Falling) who elicits all of the nuances of a script and encourages his actors to assist him in his endeavors.
TRIBES, a new play by the gifted English writer Nina Raine which is now running at the intimate Barrow Street Theatre, is no exception. It is a wonderfully detailed production. Care has been taken to cast the perfect six actors. The design team has provided a multi purpose unit set (Scott Pask), with just the right lighting (Keith Parham) and sound effects (Daniel Kluger) to enhance the carefully chosen and emotionally felt words of Ms. Raine in a play that confronts the family on stage and us – the audience – into dealing with deafness.
Choosing to stage TRIBES in the round and in so small a space affords the audience to sometimes be as frustrated as the born deaf Billy (portrayed with elegance and true humanity by Russell Harvard who is deaf, wears hearing aids and has the ability to lip read, speak and sign).
At times we are unable to hear clearly when actors have their backs to us and so we are forced into the world of semi-hearing, straining to make sense of what others are saying. This is a bold and brilliant stroke. Having us share in the disability even for so short a time brings us into their frustrating world.
Billy’s family is not inflicted with deafness. They are inflicted with not listening to or understanding each other – shouting at each other all the way around the communal dining table with lots of wine flowing down their throats. In that regard Billy has been fortunate not to hear the daily arguments between Christopher, the daddy of the brood (Jeff Perry) and his long suffering wife Beth (Mare Winningham), his sister Ruth who fancies herself an opera singer and his extremely protective younger brother Daniel (Will Brill) who hears “negative voices – who have retuned to the nest much to daddy’s displeasure.
This intellectual, creative and dysfunctional family have sheltered Billy all of his life, not wanting him to learn how to “sign”. Then he meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar) a girl with deaf parents who is slowly but surely going deaf. They fall in love. And this newfound love enables Billy to confront his parents as he learns to sign and insists that they learn to sign also so that they can communicate on an equal level. If his obstinate father can learn Chinese why won’t he learn to sign?
It’s a most unusual and moving love story. And the two actors – Russell Harvard and Susan Pourfar are exceptional – with truth and real emotions at work by the playwright that make us feel deeply for the two of them as Billy learns to sign and gets a job reading lips from video surveillance (I was a bit confused here as to what the job actually entailed but it’s important that he has left home).
As Sylvia tries to explain that “being born deaf” and “going deaf” are two different things, both horrible, we see their relationship blossom until bother Daniel’s jealousy blossoms and he has some sort of nervous breakdown (another confusing moment as we are unprepared for the incredible toll that his brother’s leaving takes on him).
The use of projected dialogue helps. And there is in Act II a brilliantly staged and acted three way conversation with speech, signing and translations of such that is amazing. The use of silence is also put to beautiful use.
TRIBES will touch your mind intellectually and your heart deeply and as we leave the theatre we will all remember the sign for love.
www.barrowstreettheatre.com Photo: Gregory Costanzo
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