Convivially coarse, the British family in Nina Raine’s captivating drama Tribes skewer each other with verbal jabs the way other families say “pass the salt.” The gleefully sour tone is set by father Christopher (John Judd), who describes a seafood meal as “like being fucked in the face by a crab,” and a colleague as a “potato-nosed cunt.”
As dad, mom and adult son and daughter skirmish, youngest son Billy (Tad Cooley) sits silent, surrounded yet alone. He’s deaf, keeping up as best he can by lipreading.
Tribes, a 2010 hit at London’s Royal Court Theatre, an off-Broadway hit in 2012, and now produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Company in partnership with Pittsburgh’s City Theatre Company, no doubt qualifies as an issue play, given the attention paid to Billy’s struggles not only in his family, but in the deaf world. But Raine balances the meaty issues of deaf culture and how it exists alongside, but separate from, mainstream hearing culture with a complicated family saga reminiscent of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County.
Billy’s story takes off when he meets Sylvia (Amanda Kearns), a young woman raised by deaf parents who is losing her hearing. She’s surprised that Billy doesn’t use sign language, which his father resisted because he didn’t want Billy to feel like a minority. Christopher, with an appalling lack of tact that he calls honesty, describes deaf people as “the Muslims of the handicapped world.”
Signing and first romance expose Billy to deaf society, providing a sense of belonging that his family never could. Sylvia knows it’s just a honeymoon period, however; deaf culture, she explains, is “kind of like the court of Louis XIV,” a confining, competitive group that knows each other too well. It sounds a lot like Billy’s divisive family, but the newness intrigues him.
Through Sylvia, Billy discovers not only people like him, but how different he is from hearing people. He shares Sylvia’s observation that “they politely let you know how inconvenient it is” to include a deaf person, and both chafe when Christopher insists that sign language is “broken English” — not a worthwhile alternative, but an inferior substitute. Billy realizes he’s spent his life trying to keep up without their help or understanding, and decides to leave his family.
An adult setting out on his own wouldn’t be unusual in most families, but in this high-strung group, family is their fortress, despite their battles. At first glance, they’re independent artistic people. Mother Beth (Laurie Klatscher) is writing a mystery novel, Christopher is learning Chinese, daughter Ruth (Robin Abramson) wants to be an opera singer, and son Daniel (Alex Hoeffler) reworks a thesis for an unnamed degree. They debate about language: not only spoken English and sign language, but music. All three adult children live at home — sharing a huge communal room, designed by Narelle Sissons, filled floor-to-ceiling with books — and the perpetually squabbling parents stick together, forming their own unique tribe.
Can Sylvia break into this damaged group? Can Billy break out?
The family’s convoluted codependence, realized most in Daniel’s never fully explained but richly portrayed mental illness, extends Tribes beyond Billy’s deaf issues to a raw examination of fractured family dynamics.
PTC’s production features Andrew David Ostrowski’s soulful lighting, Mike Tutaj’s elegant projections (which also provide some sign interpretation) and Janus Stefanowicz’s subtly specific, character-defining costumes. Director Stuart Carden’s fine cast keeps the play crackling with energy, letting Tribes become as messy, ugly and fascinating as clashing tribes truly are.
Through Feb. 23, $46-$59, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org
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