Billy’s family is hearing. Billy is not. Sylvia’s family is deaf. Sylvia is not, but she’s getting there. They meet, and fall in love. Nina Raine fills out this simple set-up, colors, shapes, and shades it to create Tribes, a remarkable new play at the Barrow Street Theatre.
Tribes has been produced in England at the Royal Court, but this is its American debut, and happily for us and Ms. Raine, it’s directed by David Cromer. It is precise and clear and works to the smallest detail while retaining a feeling of spontaneity and reality that could, in other hands, lead to chaos.
A creative laundry list of theatrical talent:
- Scenic design is brilliant, cluttered and a bit dusty, full of life and history, and books, books on every surface. A piano, a typewriter, a kitchen table where people live, not just eat. Scott Pask is a master.
- Tristan Raines’ costume design gives the actors lived-in, real clothes that tell us about the people before they even speak. Or rather, shout. Hair and makeup design by Leah J. Loukas augment Mr. Raines’ work in character definition.
- Clean, clear lighting design is by Keith Parham, and projection design is by Jeff Sugg —when we enter the theatre, the projection is “please turn off your cell phones.” Later it’s used when people are signing.
- Sound design is by Daniel Kluger. Sylvia tells Billy that her sister, who preceded her in going deaf, never told her of the noise. What does a deaf person hear? According to Mr. Kluger, it’s gray and rumbly. It’s thick static. It’s a horror.
All this supports a fine cast in a brilliant play. Billy’s well-meaning and very loud, raucous family, determined to treat him as “normal,” not “handicapped” or “other,” have failed in their good intentions. Of course, their good intentions didn’t take any extra work, like learning to sign would. Mr. Pask’s design brings us right into the kitchen, part of the action, part of the family, the crudely erudite father’s spittle flying across the table as he bellows at his wife, or his daughter, or his son, almost reaches the surrounding audience. His wife speaks softly so everyone would need to quiet down to hear her. Siblings scream at each other and are only nice to brother Billy, the way one is polite to a visitor. Midway through the play even Billy knows this and explodes, telling his family what they never knew — that in trying not to make Billy different, to the point of not learning any form of signing, as a family they all left him out of every conversation, every family fight, and every family joke. For a terribly clever family — in music, literature — they are all socially handicapped.
The family is in standard 21st century crisis — all the “children” are grown, and all have moved back into the parents’ home, unable to maintain themselves on their own. Mare Winningham is Beth, the mother, warm, loving, and insecure next to her erudite and crude husband Christopher — a splendid performance by Jeff Perry. Christopher harangues everyone and tries to learn Chinese from the computer. Beth is trying to write a novel — possibly a mystery, possibly not. Billy (Russell Harvard) is a big galumph of a guy, wearing hearing aids behind each ear. His father yells that he needs new batteries, but what Billy cannot hear, he sees when others do not. Billy’s sister Ruth (Gayle Rankin) is into music, not words, and wants to sing opera, which seems incongruous and probably is. Billy’s brother Daniel (Will Brill) is unruly — you can tell by his hair. He and his sister fight as if they were still 12. Also, he has a broken heart. And he hears voices.
Billy goes out and meets a girl. Her name is Sylvia and she doesn’t initially realize Billy’s deaf because he lip-reads so well. He doesn’t realize that she’s going deaf, but it’s never far from her mind. Susan Pourfar is a powerhouse as Sylvia, a fine mix of intellect and emotion, strength and fragility. Her Sylvia teaches Billy to sign and opens up a different world to him — a world she no longer wishes to be a part of, but is consigned to as her congenital hearing loss progresses.
When Billy brings Sylvia home to meet the family, they put her under a lens and demand information on signing, on deafness, on the society Christopher sees as a closed one. A great deal of this rudeness is intellectual curiosity. They really want to know. However, from the audience position just outside the kitchen, we are appalled at their thoughtless, cruel badgering. Sylvia almost wants to run away from the intense scrutiny, but stops short, looking at the upright piano in one corner. “Who plays?” Sylvia asks. Daniel tells her, “We all do. Well, except Billy.” Without a plaintive note, she says, “I used to play,” and sits at the piano and picks out a tune. By touch, not tone. This poignant moment finally silences Billy’s family. A miracle. And that’s just the first act.
What a family. Ruth is better at music than words, Daniel hears voices. Billy has never heard more than hearing aids allow, his father hears nothing but his own voice, while mother Beth hears all. And Sylvia hears in past tense. This is a very smart play about smart people lacking filters, manners, or sense, and two young people at their turning points.
The performances are searing, soaring, tightly wound, and the play tightly paced. David Cromer has led this fine cast to a marvelous place and brought playwright Nina Raine’s problem play to life at Barrow Street Theatre. Go to listen, and hear, and be glad of it.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to listen to some piano sonatas.