SpeakEasy Stage Company’s season opener, “Tribes” by Nina Raine, is compelling in so many ways, not the least of which is how it compels us to “hear” with our eyes. First produced in London in 2010 (with an Olivier nomination for Best Play), it had a lengthy run Off-Broadway in 2012 in a stellar production directed by David Cromer (remembered for his directing and acting in Huntington Theatre’s recent revival of “Our Town”), earning six Lucille Lortel nominations, as well as the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Best New Play. As superbly directed here by M. Bevin O’Gara (whose work last season for SpeakEasy‘s terrific production of “Clybourne Park” was so memorable), it not only opens the season but also our eyes, our ears, and ultimately our souls, with an impact that cries out to be seen, heard and felt to be believed; in its beauty and truth, it is unmatchable, unforgettable, unmissable.
The play is the story of an extremely dysfunctional family whose method of communicating their love for one another is through rather intense and almost hostile discussions. Its youngest and, at least initially, quietest member is Billy (James Caverly), who although born deaf has been raised in his hearing family as though he were exactly like them; for example, he knows nothing about sign language. His curmudgeon of a father, Christopher (Patrick Shea), is an acerbic academic critic prone to pontificating (“making deafness the center of your identity is the beginning of the end”) and sarcasm (referring to sign language as “broken English”). His slightly more sensitive mother Beth (Adrianne Krstansky) is preoccupied with writing a detective novel about a marriage breakdown. His sister Ruth (Kathryn Myles) is an aspiring opera singer performing in strange venues like church halls and pubs. His other sibling Daniel (Nael Nacer) is a neurotic underachiever who is writing a thesis about the worthlessness of language, ever ready with criticism of others, referring to opera goers as “a bunch of people listening to something they don’t understand and feeling vaguely emotional and pleased with themselves…a bit like being drunk”, living with frequent voices in his head and anti-depressants in his system. Into this insular cocoon steps Sylvia (Erica Spyres), a woman Billy has just met, who is the daughter of deaf parents, and is now losing her own hearing. How she is received by Billy’s family, one tough tribe to crack, as well as the hierarchical tribe of the deaf community (which Christopher derides as “like any sect, built on exclusion”) is the focus of the first act of this brilliant work.
The second act is a stunner, which won’t be described here lest some of the extent of its intensity be diminished, other than to note that both Billy and Sylvia are profoundly changed, one becoming more and more confident, the other becoming less and less so. Caverly, with his extraordinarily expressive face, is mesmerizing, and Spyres is an astounding force of nature. Shea and Krstansky battle as often and as brutally believably as George and Martha in “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, and Nacer shows yet another facet of his seemingly effortless versatility (as in recent regional productions “Our Town”, “Kite Runner” and “Lungs”). Only Myles is left with relatively little to convey, as her character comes across as least sympathetic in Raine’s writing. Raine has, however, provided much to feast upon in the rest of her writing. She asks us to hear exactly how we hear, both in silence as well as in speech, as we listen passively and aggressively or not at all, as a family or other groups of people with a common culture that threatens to define them. Like any significant playwright, she exposes us to worlds we didn’t know existed, such as the class distinctions in the deaf world, with people who are born deaf and use sign language at the top of the pyramid. Without being preachy, her play deals with the politics and psychology of being born deaf or gradually going deaf, as well as the deaf community’s place in society at large. In the case of Billy, who reveals to his family that he has been treated as their mascot, it’s an even more profound examination of his identity and his reinvention of himself. More broadly, Raine deals with how each of us can fit in with a group if we’re still struggling as individuals. At more than one point in the play we as the audience are suddenly made to feel deaf until something is interpreted. As Raine has stated elsewhere, she wants us to confront ourselves with the question of what choices we would make if our children had been born deaf, and whether we would be emotionally deaf as well.
In SpeakEasy’s production, as with the original off-Broadway version, the play is presented in the round, and in so doing something is lost and something is gained. For extended periods, some members of the audience are unable to see the facial expressions of some of the cast. On the other hand, intimacy for such a work is indispensable, and no theatergoer is more than five rows from the stage. This presents a real challenge for Scenic Designer Christina Todesco, Lighting Designer Annie Wiegand and Projection Designer Garrett Herzig, but all of them are up to the task. Also in top form is the (obviously) essential Sound Design by Arshan Gailus, with its meticulously chosen music ranging from the Queen of the Night’s aria from “Magic Flute” to “I Want to Be Like You” from Disney‘s “Jungle Book” to the exquisitely appropriate irony of the finale, the humming chorus from “Madame Butterfly”.
In the end, although some of the members of Billy’s family appear to be terminally self-absorbed, there is a lot of love in their tribe, albeit oddly expressed. As Raine has also stated, the fact that “people make mistakes is really the point”. Sometimes they do so out of an excess of protectiveness, sometimes possessiveness, sometimes obliviousness. But at the roots of every tribe there is that elusive need not only for feeling love, but also for communicating it, something at which this playwright has been profoundly successful. Ms. Raine, we hear you.