‘Tribes’: the sound of silence

Artists Rep's hit play about language, deafness, and family hits the storytelling sweet spot, however it's told

They say when you lose one of your senses, it enhances the others. Like if you’re deaf, maybe the stars in the night sky shine brighter, or you read strangers’ faces more keenly for clues. On the other hand, maybe you miss all the jokes at the dinner table. And maybe you constantly wonder if you’re making yourself clear.

In Artists Rep‘s hit production of Nina Raine’s Tribes (which has been held over through this Sunday, March 8), the central deaf character, Billy, lives this spectrum of pros and cons, which we feel for him thanks to a stimulating array of stage techniques: video projections, heightened and blunted sound effects, live subtitles, and live sign language. Between flooding the extra-aural senses, Tribes employs frank, witty, surprising dialogue to barrage our assumptions about language, disability and self from all sides.

"Tribes": Everybody has 'em, no two are the same. Photo: Owen Carey

“Tribes”: Everybody has ’em, no two are the same. Photo: Owen Carey

Is language (as Billy’s brother Daniel asserts) worthless? Or is it (as his father argues) the only point of access we have to our own feelings? And how is the self defined? By ability? Accomplishment? Social class? Lovability? Or is there some more inalienable, inherent state of simply being and belonging … with no permission or approval required?

Sussing out each character’s unique orientation to these core beliefs is an engaging puzzle throughout an unpredictable storyline that plays no favorites. As we watch a projected sun and moon slip across the kitchen wall, we follow a family of individuals through an irreducibly complex set of lived experiences—those that can be put into words, and those that can’t…like, say, being caught in a lie, or listening to Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune in the dark.

Billy’s parents (Linda Alper and Michael Mendelson) are two bitingly witty Brits who seem to be aging apart, and both welcome and resent their grown children’s inability to vacate their nest. His brother Daniel (Joshua J. Weinstein) was the life of the party until, at 26, he started to struggle with schizophrenic symptoms. In ironic contrast to his brother’s deafness, he hears voices that aren’t there. Billy’s sister Ruth (Kayla Lian) is a struggling opera singer who inexplicably “gigs” by performing operas in pubs. And Sylvia (Amy Newman) wanders into Billy’s life as a cute girl at a Deaf Community party whose experience mirrors his own (she grew up hearing with deaf parents), and she becomes a lifeline pulling him away from his increasingly chafing family role as “mascot.”

Beyond a few wobbles in British pronunciation, Tribes‘ actors fully realize their complex characters. Mendelson is irascible and steely, with a razor wit and a laser gaze; Alper is guarded, weary and somewhat traditionally wifely; Weinstein embodies the stresses of schizophrenia, mania, and tortured self-esteem; Lian schleps through her romantic depression with un-self-conscious surrender. Newman is easily the most sympathetic character of the clan; when she sparkles, we’re drawn in, and when she frets, we share her distress. She maintains a clear aura of impartial outsider in the midst of a family that’s otherwise fiercely dependent upon each other. If they are the storm, she’s the eye.

Deaf actor Steven Drabicki has now played Billy in four cities and has also, according to an essay in the ART playbill, basically lived this role. Growing up in a hearing family with seven kids, he struggled to participate in the family conversation, and he didn’t discover the power of sign language or claim his place in the Deaf Community until after college. Drabicki’s authenticity in his role is so complete that it’s not even a distraction from the story that unfolds. In a role that would force a hearing actor to show off technical chops, Drabicki’s humble habitation of his native Deaf role enables Raine’s storytelling to shine.



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