Alex Olson and Ryan Spahn in Tribes.
Written by Nina Raine
Directed by Evan Cabnet
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
Deaf people are slow to comprehend, lacking in intelligence, and if you just speak louder, they will understand you better. Isn’t that the all-too-common auto-response that people who are not hearing impaired take? Nina Raine explains in her program notes that sign language is challenging and “tiring” because it forces a level of conscious physical expression that that most of us are not accustomed to. A hearing impaired person may struggle to follow the spoken word, but how many of us have even attempted to learn the graceful method of communication that is American Sign Language?
Tribes takes on these sorts of questions and much more, not least of which is an aggressive family dynamic in which the fact that one member is deaf is not the only communication issue. The interrelationship between family members has always been fertile ground in English-language theatre, and Raine’s play is strong enough to stand alongside some of the greats.
Billy (Alex Olsen) has been deaf since birth, and his parents, Christopher (John Judd) and Beth (Meg Thalken) raised him “to speak” and none of the family has ever learned sign language, including brother Daniel (Ryan Spahn) and sister Ruth (Monique Barbee) who have both returned to live at home. When Billy meets Sylvia (Claire Siebers), a woman who is fluent in ASL in order to communicate with her own deaf parents and is now progressively more hearing impaired, he reacts forcefully to the new opportunities the relationship affords him.
The development and articulation of this highly individual set of characters is enthralling. The play is concerned with the familial dynamic first, and the idea that one of them is deaf second. Billy is effectively isolated but his deafness is just an excuse for the rest of the family to patronize him. Christopher’s unyielding attitudes and insistence that their refusal to embrace deaf culture enabled Billy to feel independent camouflage deep-seated dysfunction, and it is quickly made evident that Billy is not the only family member with communication difficulties. Watching this story play out is raucous, profane, and hugely funny for stretches and then moments that are subtly and profoundly moving stealthily move in.
The cast played the material in a manner that belied the fact that it was opening night. It felt well worn, lived in and spontaneous, and as should be the case with any good ensemble, it was difficult to single out any one performance as better than another, so good were they all.
The second act feels slighter than the first, even though it contains some of the most forceful confrontations, and I think it is because Raine refuses to wrap things up in a neat package. The blind assumptions that Billy’s family have always made about him are passed down to him in his newly independent life, and the end finds all the characters grappling with the truth of their journey together without offering complete resolution. Tribes does not abandon hope, but nor does it promise more than seems realistic.
The production includes several moments of dialogue delivered in ASL and captions are projected onto a set piece above the stage.
November 11-December 7, 2014
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at the Louisville Visual Art Association during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]