A review of ACT’s staging of Nina Raine’s forceful play “Tribes,” on stage through March 26.
During the calamitous opening scene of the forceful Nina Raine play “Tribes,” now at ACT Theatre, you may consider the young, deaf-from-birth Londoner Billy the most fortunate member of his immediate family.
He is spared from hearing the hailstorms of bickering whenever his relations gather in the same room. Billy’s viper-tongued father, Christopher (Frank Corrado), is a writer whose intellectual smugness is matched only by his vicious misanthropy. Billy’s anxious grad-student brother Daniel (Adam Standley) and sister Ruth (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), an aspiring singer, are childish adults who won’t leave the family nest, or cut out their whining and sibling rivalry.
Their mother, Beth (Anne Allgood), tries to referee the endless cycle of bile. But she too is drawn into the fray to parry her husband’s nasty cracks at his children’s expense, and hers.
by Nina Raine. Through March 26 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org). Performances are accessible for the hearing-impaired.
Why wouldn’t sweet-natured, sheltered Billy (played by a sensitive, observant Joshua M. Castille) be happy to miss the full onslaught of verbal venom in a home where, surmises Daniel, “abusive love is all that’s on offer”? The wrangling gets so crude and obnoxious, when pushed by director John Langs and his cast to near-earsplitting volume, that you may want to tune out, too.
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But Billy isn’t content with his exclusion, or the family ethos, nor is this provocative yet sympathetic play and production. When an interloper rattles the domestic dynamic, “Tribes” uses sign and verbal language to delve into a deeper, more complex exploration of relationships and communication.
Taught by his mother to lip-read and speak quite clearly, but never instructed in sign language, Billy comprehends and quietly resents his isolation. His education is limited; he’s never worked. Only when he falls for Sylvia (luminous Lindsay W. Evans), the more worldly daughter of two deaf parents, and a fluent signer, does he discover a different “tribe.”
The pivotal scene where Billy introduces his family to Sylvia is a minefield of fear, neediness and hostility, skillfully staged and navigated by the strong cast. Daniel lashes out at the woman who may woo away the brother he depends on. And Christopher ambushes Sylvia to trash her community as a “cult” of “deaf hard-liners,” and declares signing an inferior language of “broken English.”
“You don’t have to pin the emotion down to the word,” Sylvia responds. She also opens up to reveal her own accelerating (and irreversible) loss of hearing. While Billy has never fully heard voices, music or ambient sounds, Sylvia has — and is mourning that loss.
“Tribes” isn’t just about auditory deafness, but also the inner voices that scramble the psyche and deafen us to others’ needs, and the difference between cerebral and emotional intelligence.
Once Billy rebels against his kin, their reliance on him as a neutral source of love in a home riven with antagonism triggers some extreme acting out. (A false note and one subplot too many is Billy’s employment screw-up.)
Castille, a deaf actor with Broadway cred, is a standout in the highly able ensemble. (No one plays a hooded cobra poised to strike better than Corrado). One note: Standley’s roaring intensity as Daniel throws off the intricate emotional balance at times.
Langs’ staging prospers also from Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s setting (artsy, upper-middle-class London flat), and the superb sound design by Brendan Patrick Hogan — a fine-tuned composition of talk, music, muffled rumbling and silence that speaks volumes.