To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy families are alike; each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way. The family at the center of Nina Raine’s Tribes is dysfunctional in a highly verbal, entertaining and also dismaying way. Father Christopher is a writer and critic whose loud carping spills over into all of his relationships. His wife, Beth, has discovered a late-in-life vocation and is writing a mystery about a miserable marriage. (“I don’t know who’s done the murder yet,” she says. “I’m going to decide at the end.”) Son Daniel is working on a doctoral thesis about language and getting himself so messed up on skunk that he hallucinates voices. And his sister, Ruth, laments her single state and wants to be an opera singer. At first we don’t know much about the third sibling, Billy: He’s deaf, enclosed in a cocoon of silence, distorted sound, hearing-aid buzz and incomprehension. Beth has painstakingly taught him to speak, but he was never taught sign language because his family needed to see him as “normal” — and because of Christopher’s profound contempt for those who define themselves by their differences and disabilities. Signing would blur his son’s uniqueness and also wash out the subtleties and intricacies of language, Christopher thinks: metaphor, irony, abstract ideas.
At a gallery, Billy meets Sylvia, born to deaf parents and slowly losing her own hearing. She grew up in the community of the deaf, however, and signs fluently. Which means that Billy can’t really understand her, either. But he wants to, and she soon draws him out of his isolation.
One of the play’s most intense scenes occurs when Billy brings Sylvia home to dinner, where she endures the family’s curiosity and his father’s blunt questions with a mix of equanimity and vulnerability. Sylvia is a pianist whose playing threatens to degrade into discord as her hearing fades. She sits at the family piano after dinner and begins playing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” The family clusters around to listen, and after the first tentative notes, the music begins to soar. But Billy sits alone. The girl he’s starting to love is playing with deep feeling; we in the audience hear the rich notes. But all he hears is a dull roar.
The second act is a touch less compelling than the first, though still intriguing. Billy gains in confidence and finds employment in the court system, using his lip-reading abilities to decode video speech and help prosecutors in criminal cases. He also finds some independence from his overwhelming family. But Sylvia is beginning to fully experience the fear and loss that come with her increasing deafness. And we in the audience are contemplating the possibility that Christopher, for all his rudeness and seeming lack of empathy, may be partly right: Perhaps there is something lacking in the culture of the deaf; perhaps there are concepts that sign language can’t express.
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I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending, and some of the discussion about the socio-political realities of deafness felt a little flat after the deep feelings aroused by Raine’s inspired use of music. But Tribes remains compelling theater, raising unanswerable questions about communication — verbal, silent, physical, written — and the function of sound in our lives. And also about the meaning of family: After the discordant dynamics at the play’s beginning, Billy finds that something in his family calls to him, and their need for him turns out to be as profound as his for them. They are his tribe, every bit as much as the world of the deaf.
Director Stephen Weitz has created a strong, intelligent, well-paced production. Tad Cooley, who himself has a partial hearing impairment, plays Billy with conviction. He and Kate Finch’s Sylvia bring a rare warmth and authenticity to the action, and there’s a pleasing fluency to Finch’s signing. Stephen Paul Johnson makes blustering Christopher real, and you sometimes feel a touch sorry for him; Isabel Ellison does well as Ruth. Kathleen McCall’s Beth is too frantic, almost ditzy at times, but Andrew Pastides is terrific as Daniel, arrogant and rude as he desperately fights psychic disintegration. During an evening when we find ourselves focused far more intently than usual on language and sound, the dynamics among the actors and the rhythms they create together are perfect.
Tribes, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through November 15, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.