So much of today's "slice of life" drama brings me to the same conclusion time and time again: people can be jerks. Selfish. Egotistical. Unable to relate to society as a whole. Incapable of love and deep feeling. So on and so forth. It's very rare that a play about family behaving poorly can also deeply solidify the beauty of humanity at the same time.
Philadelphia Theatre Company's TRIBES, written by Nina Raine and directed by Stuart Carden, does exactly that. In a play about a lack of communication and comprehension, it somehow reinstates the fundamentals of being human: compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.
Billy, a young deaf man living in London with his artistically inclined family, has spent his life adapting to his family's elite knowledge of art and intellect. The family moves at a breakneck speed and Billy learns to let go of being inside their inner circle. It is not until he falls in love with Sylvia, a girl slowly losing her hearing, that Billy realizes he can truly be heard and understood.
Billy's inability to communicate with his family highlights our own inability to communicate with the ones we love. The family, surrounded by the best that technology can buy, art can enhance, and literature can provide, has no idea how to make themselves heard in the deafening din of life. For them, books and music and philosophy cannot teach them how to connect with the very people that share their blood.
The set, beautifully designed by Narelle Sissons, is something out of Disney Princess Belle's fantasy: rich paintings and worn hardcovers tower in bookshelves to the ceiling. The scene changes are accompanied by popular songs or symphonic arrangements of the classics. The audience and performers are surrounded by a place of learning and years of appreciation for the cultural masterpieces in this world.
The family, delightfully dysfunctional, are all in a state of building their own life's work, from the crotchety and lovingly abrasive father (played with expert precision by John Judd), to the kimono-wearing, aspiring novelist mother (the delightful Laurie Klatscher), to the opera singing hopeful daughter (the sweet Robin Abramson).
Where the play really shines is in the acting of Tad Cooley (Billy), Billy's brother, Daniel (Alex Hoeffler), and Billy's sweetheart, Sylvia (Amanda Kearns). Cooley and Kearns shine in their ability to fill each movement of sign language and spoken word with raw, human emotion. Their love story brings hope to the very human desire of finding someone who truly understands and appreciates you, regardless of what you lack. Hoeffler beautifully portrays the decline of a brother plagued by a mental disorder, irritated by the loss of his brother.
TRIBES is not a play about a hearing family and a deaf son. It's a play that reminds us all that, despite having all the knowledge in the world, the one thing you need to learn is compassion.
TRIBES runs until February 23, 2014 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, 480 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146. For more information or to purchase tickets, please see philadelphiatheatrecompany.org or call 215-985-0420.