Tribes: Theater Review

Tribes - H 2013
Craig Schwartz
Award-laden British import about a deaf adult in a family that refuses to learn sign language suggests metaphoric echoes beyond its social issue premise. 

The British drama about deafness and the many other ways we do not hear comes to L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum.

There are many ways not to hear besides deafness, and Tribes explores a dizzying variety: not listening, shouting others down, struggling to lip-read, tuning people out, misinterpreting, substituting what one prefers to hear for what the other person means to say.

The self-absorbed members of the unnamed family (we are ostensibly meant to be on a first-name basis on first acquaintance) are conscientiously contentious, led by argumentative father Christopher (Jeff Still), a chap so brazenly intolerant of conformity that he will brook no disagreements with his ideological line. Wife and mother Beth (Lee Roy Rogers) is writing a novel about the breakup of a dysfunctional family, which she calls a detective story in which as soon as she decides who the killer is, she will go back and add the clues.

All three of their adult children live at home, salt in the wounds of each: Daniel (Will Brill) failing at completing his thesis and dogged by auditory hallucinations, Ruth (Gayle Rankin) singing opera in pubs with a questionable voice posturing as performance art, and comparatively complacent Billy (Russell Harvard), an adept lip-reader in a loquacious household who has never learned to sign because his father didn’t want him to become a parochial participant in a deaf community he views as a victim culture.

Then Billy meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), a hearing child of deaf parents who in adulthood is in the throes of rapidly diminishing sound perception. An eloquent signer, she teaches Billy the rudiments in the classically superior method of learning a language (though the confrontational Daniel inquires how they can talk in the dark). However just as Billy is liberated by his encounters with his cohort, Sylvia finds herself withdrawing from the parochial confines of a social group unsympathetic to the trauma of her hearing loss.

Playwright Nina Raine has certainly crafted a well-wrought, intelligent drama that declines to be delimited to its prescribed brief. Although the debate over choices for the deaf has passionate adherents, and Raine judiciously affords voice to all, Tribes also deploys deafness as an existential metaphor for the nature of social ties and personal autonomy: Sylvia is losing her voice as Billy finds his own by refusing to speak, while Daniel cannot silence the voices in his head. She writes pugnaciously naturalistic dialogue and can make educated people sound credible even in their ignorances.

The play has dimensionality and some honest complexity, although it rather rigorously confines itself to the standard bourgeois dramaturgy of intelligent commercial theater (including an unconvincing subplot where Billy fraudulently puts words in people’s mouths), and it does suffer somewhat from a feeble ending that scarcely recognizes the enormity of the plights to which all the characters have come to pass.

Transplanted entirely with all personnel from its just-closed hit run at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, where Tribes was awarded both the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play, this production experiences some bumps in the transfer to the Taper, which is nearly four times the size.

The heavy ceiling to the family dining room, so expressively oppressive in its assertion of isolating enclosure, appears to create audibility problems for the actors in the hall, an effect exacerbated by a staging that especially in the early going deploys many speakers with backs to the audience. Given the established style of director David Cromer (Our Town), this may have been a consciously ironic intent, especially given the frequent cacophony of the simultaneous dialogue. And while Harvard and Pourfar as the central couple are expressive and original creations, some of the subsidiary players do not quite thoroughly plumb all the textures that are evident within the well-detailed text.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum (runs through Apr. 14)

Cast: Russell Harvard, Susan Pourfar, Lee Roy Rogers, Gayle Rankin, Will Brill, Jeff Still

Director: David Cromer

Playwright: Nina Raine

Set designer: Scott Pask

Lighting designer: Keith Parham

Sound designer: Daniel Kluger

Costume designer: Tristan Raines

Projection designer: Jeff Sugg