We had seen Nina Raine's fine play, TRIBES, at the Royal Court Theatre in London last year and liked it so much that we were eager to see it's New York production, superbly directed by David Cromer.
TRIBES begins at a typical dinner of a voluble London family. Both parents are writers and their children, though now grown, live at home because they can not cope outside the family home. Daughter Rachel is a would be actress who can't keep a man. Son Daniel is a severely bipolar young man. Younger son Billy is deaf, but the family has never learned sign language because the patriarch doesn't believe people's differences should be emphasized. Billy can't hear a the passionate conversations going on around him, but he is expert at lip reading and also has a high quote of compassion, something the rest of his family seems to lack. At a party, Billy meets Sylvia, the child of deaf parents who is going deaf herself. Through his relationship with Sylvia, Billy comes to take on the identity of deaf person and joins the deaf community his parents despise. Sylvia, who has lived with deaf people all her life, is more skeptical of that community. When Billy vents his anger toward his family for never bothering to learn to sign and leaves home, the family goes into a state of crisis, particularly Daniel who cannot cope without the brother he loves inordinately.
TRIBES is far more universal than a play about deafness. As the title suggests, it is about the communities with which we identify. When Billy tells his family that he is now part of the deaf community, his father mockingly asks him if he is coming out. In a way, this is exactly what is happening to Billy. He identifies more with other deaf people than with his family and doesn't see the two worlds as compatible. Sylvia loves Billy but doesn't feel comfortable with his militancy or his inability to understand what she is going through. If the deaf community is, as she says, insular and hierarchical, so is Billy's family, presided over by a father who is an intellectual bully (Jeff Perry brings much more nuance to this role than his London counterpart did).
This is an intense drama that works beautifully in the small Barrow Street Theatre. Cromer has staged the play in the round which brings the audience even closer to the actors (no one is more than four rows away). All the performances are superb, particularly Russell Harvard as Billy. Harvard is deaf, so watching speakers intently and signing are second nature to him. But he also has an extremely expressive face. Special praise must also be given to Will Brill who gives a gut wrenching performance as Daniel. His relationship with Billy is really the center of this production. It's interesting how direction and casting can change a play. The most memorable performance in the London production was Michelle Terry's Sylvia. Here the two brothers dominate which alters the focus, but makes total sense.
This is a beautifully written and superbly acted play that can't help but leave one shattered. Highly recommended.
TRIBES by Nina Raine. Directed by David Cromer. Barrow Street Theatre. March 11, 2012.