Monday, October 7, 2013

Sign of Life: Nina Raine's Tribes

Erica Spyres and James Caverly in Tribes

In the middle of the second act of Tribes, the drama by the English playwright Nina Raine that is being given its Boston premiere by the SpeakEasy Stage Company, Billy (James Caverly) probes the woman he’s living with, Sylvia (Erica Spyres), to clarify what’s going wrong between them. Billy is deaf; Sylvia – his first serious girl friend – grew up with deaf parents but has only recently begun to lose her hearing. Billy grew up in a hearing family and never learned to sign; his mother Beth (Adrianne Krstansky) taught him how to speak and as a child he showed no interest in interacting with other deaf people because he absorbed his parents’ point of view that if he spoke and read lips and wore hearing aids then he could conquer what they saw in others as a handicap. But his relationship with Sylvia has drawn him into the deaf world, and she’s taught him how to sign. However, now he feels that she’s growing away from him, and he’s right. She insists that her feeling of loss as she goes deaf is different from anything he could possibly have experienced, since he’s never been able to hear:
I feel I’m losing my personality. . . can’t even be ironic any more . . . I feel stupid . . . when I lose something in the house I have to put my hearing aids in to look for it . . . I have these dreams . . . when I’m talking on the phone again. And I can hear perfectly. It’s all so clear . . . I don’t know who I am any more . . .
At the end of the scene she speaks and signs (“vehemently,” according to the stage directions), “Not everything in my life can be deaf.” This must be the most unorthodox break-up scene I’ve ever encountered in the theatre.

Perhaps the hardest thing a young playwright has to face is the challenge of coming up with a fresh idea; there isn’t a single idea in Tribes that isn’t fresh. Billy is the youngest of three children, all in their twenties, from an outspoken liberal-intellectual family, and at the moment the play begins all three are living with their parents. Ruth (Kathryn Myles) is trying to forge a career as an opera singer, Daniel (Nael Nacer) to finish his dissertation while he recovers from a break-up. They and their parents, Beth and Christopher (Patrick Shea), live in a perpetual state of turmoil, quarreling amongst themselves yet firmly bonded against the rest of the world. Only Billy doesn’t take part in their shouting matches. They all flatter themselves that he’s completely engaged in their discussions but we can see that he isn’t – that even with his aids in and his finely developed lip-reading skills, he’s a step behind. He’s the only passive member of the household, a quality that, along with his compassion, makes him everyone’s favorite. They don’t ferret out his feelings; they reflect themselves in him, just as the characters in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter who confide in the deaf-mute Singer delude themselves that he understands them when in fact he finds them all baffling. When Billy brings Sylvia home for dinner, Christopher and Dan, armored against this intruder who is threatening their familial status quo, behave insensitively, but her relationship with Billy survives the ordeal and the family accepts her. (Well, almost everyone does: Dan, who is fragile and feels closer to his brother than to anyone else, tries in several ways to undermine it.) But one night, after Billy has moved in with Sylvia, they visit his family and, signing and using her as his speaking interpreter, he conveys to them his decision to stop communicating with them until they learn to sign as well.

There’s more. With Sylvia’s encouragement Billy lands a job reading lips in audio-less tapes that have been introduced as evidence in court cases, but he loses it when it becomes clear that he’s not just reading but filling in what he can’t actually see – relying on guesswork, just as he learned to do growing up in the hearing world. And Daniel begins to hear voices inside his head. Raine, a director who produced her first play, Rabbit, in 2006 – Tribes is only her second – is bursting with dramatic ideas, and the worst thing you can say about Tribes is that she can’t do justice to all of them. This is the work of yet another startlingly talented young British playwright.

David Cromer staged the American premiere of Tribes at the Barrow Street Theater in New York (where he’d previously directed a justly famous revival of Our Town), and though its run kept getting extended I was foolish enough to let it close without checking it out. The SpeakEasy production, directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, is mediocre. Except for Caverly and especially Spyres, the acting is unfocused and wildly overstated, and Cristina Todesco’s set design is notably unattractive. The play comes through nonetheless.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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