How does a playwright portray the isolation and loneliness that being deaf entails?
In the case of Tribes, playwright Nina Raine has the help of award-winning director David Cromer, the brilliant acting of deaf actor Russell Harvard, who speaks, signs, and lip-reads, and the special effects of lighting designer Keith Parham and sound designer Daniel Kluger. All of whom collaborate to make a deeply engrossing theater experience.
In a boisterous, argumentative family that shouts its way through every conversation, Billy (Harvard) is quickly lost in the noise. His predicament causes the stage to darken, equating darkness with deafness and graphically thrusting the audience into his silent world.
At the other end of the spectrum is Billy’s devoted brother Daniel (Will Brill), whose head is burdened with insistent voices and persistent static.
Heading this dysfunctional family is the patriarch, Christopher (Jeff Still), a writer who believes in the supremacy of language even though he knows that “language doesn’t determine meaning.” He is in love with “the premise of language and the expression of words.”
It is he who has been most insistent that Billy learn to speak and lip-read, believing that the community of deaf people who sign are “members of a cult founded on exclusion. They are the Muslims of the handicapped community,” he says.
When Billy becomes interested in a young woman, Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), who is in the process of going deaf, he brings her home to meet his family. His mother (Lee Roy Rogers) and sister (Gayle Rankin) join in the family’s nerve-wracking session of grilling her on how to express various abstract feelings in sign language. (Much as a child will grill an adult when he discovers she speaks a foreign language.)
Christopher fixates on the limitations of sign language and goads her about the efficacy of speaking vs. signing. And she is forced to admit that the limitations of sign language sometimes make the signers appear brash and tactless.
Later, as he learns to sign and express his feelings, however, Billy recognizes that he is “a second-class citizen” in his own family. “You all laugh,” he says, “but you can’t be bothered to explain the joke to me.” Whereupon his sister Ruth responds angrily, “None of us can be bothered with any of us!”
Having brought Sylvia to translate for him, he signs his frustration that the family has never learned that language and notes that “this is the first time you’ve listened to me, and it’s because I’m not talking!”
An interesting aspect of this play is that when the family is discussing something, they all talk at once, interrupting each other, shouting to be heard, and generally creating a bedlam in which none of them can be heard or understood.
On the other hand, when Billy and Sylvia sign to each other, their conversation is projected on various surfaces around the stage. The only problem with this is that, depending on where you’re seated, the words are too small and too far away to read.
David Cromer’s last foray into Los Angeles theater was the exceptionally fine rendering of Our Town at the Broad Stage. In Tribes he shepherds his flock of extraordinary actors through a play that is gripping, thought provoking, and attractively attired in designer Scott Pask’s appropriately “lived-in” setting. But you’ll be glad you don’t live there with this exhausting family.
Tribes will continue at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, in downtown Los Angeles Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 pm through April 14. Call 213-628-2772 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org for tickets.