Meet the family at the core of Nina Raine's smartly wise, well-acted and subtle drama Tribes at the Barrow Street Theater: three grown kids and parents all living under the same roof. Opening on what might be a typical dinner for these upper class, articulate intellectuals, cacophony reigns as speakers clamor for attention; for clarity, Christopher (Jeff Perry), the dad of this unruly clan, whips out the Lacan. Or maybe the act is to belittle as this retired academic's specialty is language, and the uses and abuses thereof. As barbs fly, soon you see that one son sits in eye bulging silence craning to look fully at his siblings' faces attempting to read their lips. Deaf, Billy was not brought up signing. In denial about his "disability," it turns out, the family has, so to speak, turned a deaf ear.
As performed by Russell Harvard, Billy is handsome, coming into manhood; in the next scene, he meets a girl. A hearing child of deaf parents, Sylvia (Susan Pourfar) is now going deaf herself, finding this transition a cruel fate, worse in her view than Billy's who has been deaf since birth. She enables Billy to grow, questioning the "tribe" to which he belongs. Of course, as Billy advances, refusing to communicate using the clumsy words he's learned without hearing them, he forces his kin to sign, to learn a different language. Family dynamics reverse.
Maybe, in a family like this, not hearing is a blessing. "Dad likes using metaphors," says brother Daniel (Will Brill), quoting Christopher on his last girlfriend. Rebecca was "like sticking your cock into a cement mixer." Long suffering Beth, the mom (Mare Winningham), mediates as moms in such families do, while writing a marriage breakdown detective novel. Daniel and sister Ruth (Gayle Rankin), early shining stars, are left, infantilized, disabled.
As with the recent revival of Our Town at the Barrow Street Theater, also expertly directed by David Cromer, this drama plays out in the round. The audience encircles the dining table that doubles as a bed in a key scene. Titles are projected as the transmission of words and meaning take their Lacanian course. Theater is, after all, about language, here sometimes spoken, seen, or under the radar.
At the opening night after party at A.O.C., a neighborhood French bistro, Nina Raine, the young British playwright revealed an inspiration for this accomplished work: Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. On a smaller scale, mining its own specific metaphor, Tribes probes the emotional "cement" that binds families.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.