It’s almost a guarantee that when seeing a production at the Phoenix Theatre it will be an enriching, thought provoking, and often moving experience. “Tribes,” an absorbing comedy/drama by Nina Raine, which opened Thursday, is no exception.
Raine’s play, which had its U.S. premier Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre in 2012, won the 2012 Drama Desk Award and is currently among the 10 most produced plays in the country.
The play, which covers a multitude of topics, centers on Billy, who is born deaf, and the challenges and obstacles he faces. His chief problems are the narcissistic members of his intellectual and proudly unconventional English family, all of whom hear but don’t truly listen to him, or each other. Able to lip read but limited in his ability to communicate with his noisy, constantly sparring family, Billy feels isolated and ignored until he meets Sylvia, with whom he falls in love. Born to deaf parents and slowly losing her own hearing, Sylvia teaches Billy sign language. She also introduces him to others who are hearing-impaired and members of a community or “tribe” that feels more like a family to him because they “hear” and understand him, unlike his own. Finding his identity, Billy is empowered and strikes out for independence from his family, thereby causing a profound shift in its dynamics. Suggesting that things will never be the same for Billy’s family, but in exchange for their dysfunction, they might find authenticity, the play’s conclusion seemed a bit too contrived for an otherwise well-crafted script.
Consummately directed by Purdue University Professor Richard Rand, the superb “Tribes” cast consisted of Kathryn Bartholomew (Ruth), Matthew Goodrich (Daniel), Stephen Hunt (Christopher), Gigi Jennewein (Beth), Andrew Martin (Billy) and Ryan O’Shea (Sylvia).With each actor turning in believable performances (utilizing British accents which sounded authentic and were consistent), several stood out for the strength and nuances inherent in their characterizations.
Chief among them was Hunt as Christopher, an academic critic. He's the pompous, caustic and relentlessly overbearing patriarch of the family. In his supposedly well-meaning attempt at ensuring that Billy is treated as normal, Christopher is partially responsible for maintaining his son’s isolation by not allowing him to learn sign language nor encouraging the entire family to do so.
Martin was exceptional as the withdrawn, vulnerable Billy, who, after discovering himself, becomes confident and assertive and is finally able to state his needs after finding his voice with Sylvia’s assistance and support.
Goodrich also made an impact as Daniel, a pot smoking, would be writer who battles schizophrenia in the form of voices in his head, and who goes into a downward spiral once Billy decides to reject the family for Sylvia and the deaf community he feels more a part of.
Exceptional technical elements for “Tribes” finely contributed to its success. Chief among them were Tom Horan’s sound design, which made it possible to imagine what the world of the hearing impaired sounds like.
Bernie Killian’s set design, which featured a dining and living room area of the family’s home filled with books, tchotchkes, and artifacts that spoke to their interests and lifestyle, was beautifully crafted and stimulating to the eye without distracting from the story itself.
Jeff Martin’s lighting design was particularly effective in the way it poignantly illustrated Billy’s isolation from a family that doesn’t acknowledge his presence and his disconnection from the hearing world in general.
Also powerful effective in portraying the physical and psychological experience of the hearing impaired was Ben Dobler’s projection design, shown throughout the space, which incorporated sub-titles of sign language.
The intimacy that the 65-seat Frank and Katrina Basile Stage space affords and Rand's inventive staging, makes "Tribes" a particularly satisfying experience. Being so completely drawn into the play's action on stage and in the house makes for compelling theater.
It’s no surprise that “Tribes” has attracted the attention of the deaf community—so much so that members will be accommodated at certain performances when ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters will participate. Post-play discussions with the director, cast and others will also be held after various performances. For information about these activities and to purchase tickets for “Tribes,” which runs through Feb. 9, call (317) 635-7259 or visit www.phoenixtheatre org.