by: Sandi Durell

Everyone is steeped in their unique ways of communicating. For Nina Raine’s comic-drama,Tribes, at the Barrow Street Theatre, this unconventional British family only knows loud and louder, argumentative noise-makers all, everyone trying to make their point and no one really listening other than to what they each have to say.

This mal-functioning unit consists of pseudo-intellect father Christopher (Jeff Perry), a blow-hard of a man who is a writer and teacher and has no boundaries from brain to tongue; his “let’s make everything nice” sensitive wife Beth (Mare Winningham) is writing a detective novel about marriage breakup, and three adult children who have returned to the nest.

Let’s explore these three – Daniel (Will Brill) is working on a thesis about language, is foul-mouthed, medicated, and bordering on schizophrenia; Ruth (Gayle Rankin), who features herself an opera singer as her latest career, is unhappy because she doesn’t have a boyfriend and the youngest, Billy (Russell Harvard), is deaf (he is in real life) and never learned to sign but, with the help of hearing aids, can speak. His parents wanted to treat him as normally as possible and so Billy learned to read lips. It’s obvious that he’s not a part of the turmoil in this family’s day to day lives. It’s also obvious that they have done nothing to accommodate his problem but given him an expectation that it’s up to him to live in their world.

Billy meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar) who speaks perfectly well but is going deaf (her parents both deaf), and has spent her life signing as communication. She inveigles Billy to feel somewhat guilty for never having participated in the language (signing) that is theirs and he has this sudden burst and need to embrace it and Sylvia, as he falls in love with her. When he brings her home to meet his family, especially his father, she undergoes a microscopic inspection of confrontation.

This is a wham bam kind of production, quick dialogue, the use of projections (Jeff Sugg) that interpret the extensive signing that goes on throughout, and tricky staging that director David Cromer, with the help of lighting by Keith Parham, seem to have perfected to a T. The set, by Scott Pask, is a somewhat messy interior kitchen-dining-living area and most notable is the creation of a theater-in-the-round effect that Cromer has expertly conquered. The enhancing sound design by Daniel Kluger of music and noise is noteworthy as well.

When Billy decides he can no longer live or communicate with this intolerable family and announces he is leaving them and will no longer speak with them until they learn signing, the plot becomes more intense, angry and heart rending. As Sylvia looses more hearing each day, she undergoes changes that now challenge her relationship with Billy.

Harvard and Pourfar are the underpinnings of this remarkable play. Brill has done a brilliant interpretation of someone who tries to stay above it all, but in truth, is lonely for love and feeling the horrors of slipping away into his illness.

“Tribes” requires a remarkably skilled cast of actors and these six are all that and more guided by the impeccable hand of David Cromer. The play runs 2 hours with an intermission.

As a post script, I want to mention information passed along to me through a friend by Arlene Romoff who has written two books. Born with normal hearing, Arlene began a gradual 25-year descent into deafness as a young adult. Left profoundly deaf, the miracle of cochlear implants brought a return to hearing allowing for communication in the hearing world, including oral speech and language skills. Only 2% of people with hearing loss use sign language. The theme of her second book “Listening Closely” speaks about the isolation of deafness and the impact of how it is underestimated unless it is experienced.

Photo: Gregory Costanzo