By Judd Hollander
Photos by Gregory Costanzo
Pointedly biting, wonderfully politically incorrect, and containing absolutely exquisite dialogue, Nina Raine's “Tribes” pulls no punches and lands right on target in its New York debut at the Barrow Street Theatre, winningly directed by David Cromer.
The play looks at a liberal and very dysfunctional family and the issues they face. Christopher (Jeff Perry) and his wife Beth (Mare Winningham) are both writers. Not quite aging hippies, but close, the two are currently adjusting to the return of younger son Daniel (Will Brill) and daughter Ruth (Gayle Rankin), both of whom have recently finished school. Daniel, who hears voices and is battling the onset of schizophrenia, is trying to find his footing as a writer, while Ruth is working on her vocal talents in an attempt to sing professionally. The family dinner table is a constant hot bed of conversations, cross arguments, snipes and verbal digs, though they all have an obvious affection for one another. However, eldest son Billy (Russell Harvard) often feels left out of the ebb and flow of the various discussions, as he has been deaf from birth.
Billy's parents decided long ago not to send their child to a special school, determined to treat him like just everyone else so he would never feel the stigma of being handicapped. As such, Billy never learned to sign, though he did become an expert lip reader. However for his lip reading to work, people have to be looking directly at him when they talk, which is not always the case.
All this changes when Billy meets Sylva (Susan Pourfar), a young woman who is slowly losing her own hearing due to a genetic condition. As Sylvia and Billy begin to bond and their relationship develops, she teach Billy to sign and also introduces him to her friends in the deaf community, opening up his eyes to a world he never before understood or knew existed. However, with this knowledge also comes the realization that despite everyone's best efforts, in some ways Billy is indeed seen as a second class citizen, even unconsciously regarded as such by his own family. Determined to regain a proper status in his own eyes, and forcing those around him to finally start to understand his needs, Billy demands the family "speak" to him only on his own terms from now on.
While these events could easily form the basis for the entire play, there is far more than one person's story being told. Each of the characters has emotional baggage to deal with, and everyone gets a own moment or moments to put their needs and pain front and center. In a nice touch, the show also offers some interesting insights about the deaf community ("it's hierarchal" as Sylvia notes). Best of all, the playwright doesn't try for an easy way out and forces the various characters to confront their issues head-on. From Daniel facing the departure of the brother he sees as a lifeline to reality; to Billy trying too hard to be accepted with his condition and, as a result, hurting others in the process; to Christopher realizing that his comments, while having more bark than bite, can actually hurt people - no matter if he means to or not. It also helps that all of the characters are fully formed, each with their own flaws and foibles, thus making them all quite interesting.
Harvard and Pourfar are very good as Billy and Sylvia, being in a way different sides of the same coin, each drawing strength and succumbing to weaknesses from the other. In this manner, the two have an almost symbiotic relationship, the actors playing off each other perfectly. Billy has eyes opened to new possibilities with sign language, allowing him to not only "speak" words but also convey the emotions that go with them, including pain, sorrow, loss and outright rage. Yet this is a world Sylvia is already tiring of and would do anything to leave. While Billy knows what it's like to be deaf, he has no concept of having his hearing slowly being taken away. One of the most painful moments in the play occurs when Sylvia realizes she can no longer hear her own voice and is thus losing the ability to modulate it. At the same time, Billy rushes too fast into the world Sylvia shows him, trying to do too much too soon in order to meet what he perceives are everyone's expectations.
Brill as is wonderful as Daniel, a young man desperate to break away from his father's and family's shadow, not to mention the demons associated with mental illness. Perry is perfectly cast as Christopher, a man who loves taking people down verbally and grudgingly respects those stand up to him. A crotchety and intellectual sort, he may not always be good father material, but he's certainly great fun to listen to. Winningham is nicely earthy as Beth, a strong maternal type through and through, putting up with her family's various traits and contributing her share of quirks to the mix. Beth has also been pretty much subservient to her husband's wishes and parenting methods until now. Ruth is the least developed of the characters, somewhat overshadowed by the other, more flamboyant family members, but Rankin carries off the role nicely as a woman trying to find her own way in life.
Cromer's almost instinctual direction works very well here, moving the play like a cross between a complex ballet and a rousing ping-pong match, with a continual fluidity of verbal and physical motion throughout. There is always something happening on stage -- whether a confrontation during a meal or an important intimate talk -- with tensions and emotions usually running quite high while continually grabbing and holding the audience's attention.
Scott Pask's set is very good, the play staged in the round with the action moving all about the stage and at times, throughout the theatre. Costumes by Tristan Raines are quite pleasant to look at.
Intellectually stimulating and wonderfully engaging, "Tribes" is a brilliantly structured multilayered piece about people in transition who can turn to no one but themselves and those they love most of all. It also helps that the story doesn't tie everything up neatly, leaving certain outcomes unresolved, questionable and above all, messy - just like real life. The play is a joy to experience, go see it if you can.
By Nina Raine
Featuring: Will Brill (Daniel), Russell Harvard (Billy), Jeff Perry (Christopher), Susan Pourfar (Sylvia), Gayle Rankin (Ruth), Mare Winningham (Beth)
Directed by David Crommer
Scenic Design: Scott Pask
Costume Design: Tristan Raines
Lighting Design: Keith Parham
Projection Design: Jeff Sugg
Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Prop Design & Coordination: Kathy Fabian/Propstar
Hair & Make-Up Design: Leah J. Loukas
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Casting: Pat McCorkle Casting
General Manager: Michael Page
Production Management: Production Core
Technical Director: Pete Fry
Advertising: aka Press Representative: O&M Co.
Understudy for Billy/Daniel: Thomas DellaMonica
Understudy for Christopher: Jeff Still
Understudy for Ruth/Sylvia: Meghan Mae O'Neill
Associate General Manager: Amy Dalba
Assistant Stage Manager: Rosy Garner
Assistant Scenic Designer: John Zuiker
Assistant Costume Designer: Caitlin Conci
Assistant Light Designer: Ryan Metzler
Assistant Projection Designer: Patrick Southern
Assistant Sound Designer: Nathan Wheeler
Assistant Production Manager: Maggie Davis
Assistant Technical Director: Sergio Murania
Production Assistant: Xander Duffy
Assistant Director: Seth Sikes
ASL Interpreter: Candace Broecker-Penn
ASL Consultant: Alexandria Wailes
Piano Coach: Daniel Kluger
Master Electrician: The Lighting Syndicate
Mainstage Programmer: Bill Growney
Audio Head: Colin Whitely
Scenic Charge: Jacquelyn Marlot
Running Crew: Matt Allamon
Projections/Sound Board Operator: Josh Kohler
Wardrobe Supervisor: Ricola Willie
Production Photographer: Gregory Costanzo
Ticketing: Smarttix Entertainment Services
Program Printing: Luminar Solutions
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street
Tickets: 212-868-4444 or http://www.smarttix.com/
Closes: September 2, 2012