On “Tribes”

This will be my last entry for last week’s adventures in New York theatre.  Each of the six entries beginning on January 18, is somewhat independent,  although each does build to some degree on the one before.  So if anyone is interested in reading the whole journal in order, including the latest edits, scroll down to the Jan. 18 entry and work your way up from there.  It was quite a week.  And it ended with one of the best:

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

     Tribes originated, as so much good contemporary drama does, from London’s Royal Court Theatre, where it had been  commissioned by the English Stage Company and opened in 2010.  It opened here at the Barrow Theatre last March, where it immediately became a multiple “critics pick” and won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.

Only the second play written by Nina Raine, who had trained as a director at the Royal Court, Tribes is the story of a middle class family with three grown children, one of whom is deaf from birth.  On one level, it’s another dysfunctional family story, but taken up a very big  notch.  Billy has been raised to read lips and speak clearly by parents who wish him to function as “normally” as possible in a world which doesn’t deal well with handicaps and being “different.”  But when he falls in love with Sylvia, a girl in the process of inevitably going deaf herself, he is introduced to signing.  The fascinating drama which results is rife with conflicts between “tribes,” groups of people who adhere to certain belief systems and are “deaf” to alternatives.  But Raine takes us well beyond the issue of signing vs. lip-reading into the whole human inability to communicate adequately with words, which rings true on so many different levels in this play.  How do we know what is in our hearts and minds until we can put words to it?  But where are the words that will adequately express how we feel and the urgency of what we believe?  What is the real function of language?  And what if anything can be shared without it?  And most ironic of all, why does language so often result in isolation and exclusion?

The cast is universally superb, led by Russell Harvard, who himself was born deaf.  The very detailed naturalistic setting at the little off-Broadway Barrow Theatre, is intimate and in the round.  David Cromer is at the director’s post, and has once again convinced me that he is one of the very top American directors.  A seasoned Chicago actor and director who has had his share of bombs, he is best known for his acclaimed 2009 production of “Our Town” at the Barrow.  And here he displays the same close attention to detail and extraordinary sensitivity to his very rich material.  There is an unforgettable scene at the end of Tribes between the two brothers, each handicapped in his own way, in which words are irrelevant, and silence speaks all.  It will stay with me for a long time.

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