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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

It's all about empathy. I have to think my way into my characters' heads. — Ruth
Joshua Castille. (Photo credit Scott Barrow).
A powerful play about family dependence and communication, Nina Raines' Tribes is currently at Barrington Stage Company. It is an absorbing, yet at times disturbing examination of one group's struggle with another's perspective.
Set in a cluttered yet light filled English home, books dominate every available space. This middle class family of quasi-Jewish aesthetes sit around the dining area trading insults and supercilious evaluations of each other and the rest of the world but do not seem to have opened their mind to embrace new ideas. The three adult children Daniel (Miles G. Jackson,) Ruth (Justine Salata) and Billy (Joshua Castille) are bullied and dominated by their parents Christopher (C. David Johnson) and Beth (Deirdre Madigan) who when not fault-finding if not outright verbally abusing their children, bicker with and criticize each other.

Daniel and Ruth have returned once more to the family's emotional hot house after failing to establish themselves in relationships and careers. Daniel hears voices and stutters when under pressure. Ruth is limping along pursuing a career as an erstwhile opera singer but does not have an accurate evaluation of her own voice. Billy, home from college, is deaf. It seems that all three siblings suffer from some form of aural dysfunction. However, in some respects, Billy is fortunate; as the family jockeys for verbal dominance he is isolated from the viciousness that permeates the household. Though he wears hearing aids and can lip read, he misses linguistic tonalities and nuances. This could be a blessing in this narcissistically vituperative atmosphere.

Billy has never learned to sign as his parents thought it would either protect him from the deaf world or isolate him from the hearing. Christopher at one point pronounces deaf culture as "...the fucking Muslims of the handicapped world."

Ironically, after browbeating his family with no-holds-barred critiques of their choices, Christopher retreats to his Chinese language lessons while making very little attempt to communicate or listen to his own children, especially Billy. Beth is working on a "marriage breakdown detective novel." Daniel makes pronouncements such as, "language does not determine meaning."

The beginning of Tribes is a funny yet horrifying combination of witty putdowns and eccentric predilection which the British do so well., As Billy says, " I thought everyone's parents walked around in the nude shouting at each other."

Into this insular tribe Billy introduces Sylvia(Eli Pauley). Born to deaf parents, she herself is gradually losing her auditory abilities. Sylvia and Billy hook up and she introduces him to sign language. As she guides him through the new hierarchies of the deaf world the family cohesiveness is threatened. Billy is in love, learning sign language and extracting himself from their possessiveness. He finds a job and moves out.

The dramatic tenor of the play is dominated by educational overtones as Raines emphasizes the exclusionary rules of deaf culture. As Billy assimilates into his new life, like a new convert, he wants to completely eschew his old ties, and accept the trappings, rules and limitations of his newly discovered cohort. For the first time he belongs, but unlike Sylvia, he has not been involved long enough to be discerning.

Using the deaf community as a paradigm, Raines has cleverly depicted the levels of social strata that exist within all sub-cultures by which humans define themselves. Perhaps it is part of the hardwiring survival process and thus, inescapable.

There are moments of profound poignancy and insight. When Sylvia plays Clair de Lune on the family's piano they almost reverentially hover. It is one of the last times she will engage that deeply with music. Sylvia describes her gradual inability to hear her own voice and despairs most over the loss of irony in day-to-day exchanges.

It's easy to see why this play has resonated with audiences wherever it's played since it's London premiere (see links to that as well as Curtainup's New York and Los Angeles reviews at the end of the production notes). What makes the Barrington Stage especially intense is that Pauley is herself hard of hearing and Castille is deaf. Yet their characters are far more fluent in articulating their ideas than their hearing counterparts. It always benefits from production values of sound, music, lighting, and projections that are designed to both enhance and confuse our auditory sensibilities. Sound waves pulsate in an oscillating visual intensity and music vibrates and competes with action. Incomplete word translations are flashed on a super screen; this quirky family's forced immersion into a new tribes's values, morals and language is going to be a bumpy ride.

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Tribes by Nina Raine
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Cast: Miles G. Jackson (Daniel) Deirdre Madigan (Beth) Justine Salata (Ruth) C. David Johnson (Christopher) Joshua Castille (Billy) Eli Pauley (Sylvia)
Scene design: John McDermott
Lighting design: Philip S. Rosenberg
Costume design: Tracy Christenson
Sound design: Toby Algya
Stage Manager: Renee Lutz
Projection designer: Alex Basco Koch
ASL Interpreters: Candace Broecker Penn, Chris Mathews
ASL Advisors: Christopher Tester, Alexandria Wailes
Running Time: Two hours; one intermission
Barrington Stage Company, Boyd-Quinson Main Stage, Pittsfield, MA
From 8/18/16; opening 8/21/16; closing 9/3/16
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at August 21 performance
Links to reviews of Curtainup's other reviews of Tribes:
Tribes in London
Tribes in New York
Tribes Los Angeles

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