TRIBES by Nina Raine first premiered in 2010 at London'sRoyal Court Theatre. It won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play in its Off-Broadway premiere. The play is a look at a dysfunctional British family, made up of parents Beth (Babs George) and Christopher (Mitch Peleggi) and their three grown children who are still living at home: Daniel (Aaron Johnson), Ruth (Ava L'Amoreaux) and Billy (Stephen Drabicki). Billy is deaf and was raised to read lips and speak but without knowledge of sign language. One evening in a nightclub, Billy meets Sylvia (Iris McQuillan-Grace), a woman born to deaf parents now slowly going deaf herself. As Billy falls in love with Sylvia, and she teaches him sign language, the play exposes the audience to the deep divide between the deaf and hearing communities.
Raines script is full of humor and revelation. While it begins slowly and feels very talky for most of the first act, the arrival of the character of Sylvia, who is the catalyst for the family to examine their beliefs and familial hierarchies, ignites the script and takes the audience on a blistering journey of examination into the tribes of family and extended family. There's much to absorb here and even more that you will mull over for days after you've left the theatre.
TRIBES exposes how we fail to listen and fail to hear, especially within families. The medium for all of this is the deafness of youngest son Billy, who in his parents' idealistic (but highly misguided) attempt to raise him no differently than anyone else, has also been given no special consideration. This narcissistic, self-centered family has instead disabled Billy by expecting him to function in the world as if he had no disability. They've refused to teach him sign language, refused to let him explore the deaf community, and in essence kept him from joining his tribe. Billy instead reads lips but doesn't engage in debate. This family talks, but meaning is avoided by the use of constant one-upmanship.
The cast here is excellent, including the British accents. Mitch Pileggi is outstanding as the over-educated, arrogant father who lords it over his wife and three adult children. Christopher is absorbed by trying to learn Chinese, but learning American Sign Language to communicate with his son is not worth his effort. Stephen Drabicki is, by turns, charming and heart breaking as Billy. As Billy's slacker sister Ruth, Ava L'Amoreaux, is a study in self-absorption. Anyone else's happiness is promptly redirected into her morass of millennial entitlement. Babs George as wife Beth is terrific as she ineffectively attempts to stop her husband running rough shod over everyone he feels is intellectually inferior to him. We see clearly this is a woman with no power in her own home. Iris McQuillan-Grace, is charismatic as Sylvia and is especially impressive in her vocal abilities as we see the vocal quality progressively change as her hearing of her own voice becomes lost to the character. One particular moment of explaining the various speaking voices of deaf people is astonishing.
The standout performance of the piece belongs to Aaron Johnson, as brother Daniel. His character is writing a thesis about how language doesn't determine meaning. Billy's transition away from his biological family to his adoptive one causes the greatest problems for him. Dan resumes stuttering as a consequence as we witness the character's breakdown. Johnson captures the painful slide of his character both subtly and adeptly. The end result is absolutely riveting to watch.
Dave Steakley has done a masterful job of directing the piece with beautiful staging and taut pacing. The tech is truly impressive.
Michelle Ney has designed a technological marvel of a multi-leveled, rotating set that is like a modern art installation piece and becomes a character in and of itself. This is one of the finest sets I've seen anywhere and it absolutely Broadway quality. It is enhanced beautifully by the striking lighting design of Sarah Maines. The set shimmers, glows and has projections on it throughout the evening. Translations of sign language are projected on the set, enabling those who don't know sign language to eavesdrop. When you consider the difficulty of making a projection onto something curved and rippled readable, this is some impressive work that adds to the emotional charge of the performance.
The sound throughout, designed by Craig Brock, enhances the experience. Brock's design shows how sound is heard, and conversely, not heard.
TRIBES is a lovely play that offers some unexpected surprises along the way to a highly satisfying ending. You'll be truly transported by this ZACH staging.
TRIBES by Nina Raine
Running time: Two Hours plus a 20 Minute intermission. Advisory: Adult Language.
TRIBES, produced by Zach Theatre, playing in the Topher Theatre (202 South Lamar Blvd.). January 27 - February 28, 2016. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 pm. Sundays at 2:30 PM. Tickets start at $25. Reservations: http://tickets.zachtheatre.org/