BWW Reviews: Steppenwolf's TRIBES Breaks Down Language Barriers
Steppenwolf Theatre Company is no stranger to the family drama. Time and again, they have explored the chaos, hilarity, and (almost always) dysfunction that make up a family. What makes Steppenwolf's family dramas excel over others is that, even with plays that magnify and exaggerate human characteristics, the characters are always rooted in reality. This has never been more clear, perhaps, than in "Tribes," which opened this past weekend and runs through February 9th, 2014.
Nina Raine's "Tribes" takes us into the home of an English family whose three adult children are all currently living at home. When we first meet this clan over a family dinner, you may find it hard to keep up with these creative intellects as they debate and quarrel at rapid-fire. At first, I found fault in the direction for not accurately pacing the dialogue or making sure that what the audience needed to hear was heard, but I should have known better than to point fingers at the theatre company that has perfected the fast-talking and overlapping family. I soon realized that feeling a step behind is exactly what this family does to outsiders. And, they make no apologies for it.
However, it's clear from the start that one of their own may identify more with us outsiders than his own kin: Billy, one of the three children, who was born deaf (John McGinty, who plays an excellent Billy, was also born deaf). His parents raised him to excel at both lip-reading and speaking and is treated as though he is hearing, something the family prides themselves on. However, they limit him in another capacity: despite how well Billy has adapted to lip-reading, in this never-still and always-chatting family, it's impossible to keep up if you are dependent on being able to see each person's mouth when they are speaking. If Billy falls behind and asks family members what is being said, especially in moments of unease, Billy is kept from the drama and told everything is fine.
At this particular time in this family's lives, the two others siblings are at a bit of a standstill. The only daughter, Ruth, has just ventured into a dead-on-arrival singing career and the other son, Daniel, has recently moved back home, broken up with his girlfriend, and is writing a thesis (which the audience is made to believe is not very good). Billy, on the other hand, is just beginning to assert his place in both the world and his family. The catalyst for this change is Sylvia (played naturally and likably by Alana Arenas, in a role that is one of her better performances), a woman who hails from a family with deaf parents and whose genetic deafness is quickly setting in on her. She introduces Billy to the deaf community and teaches him sign language, something Billy's family has always looked down upon.
While certainly eccentric and quirky (which has become the mode for many family comedies these days), these characters are not always easily lovable. In fact, by the end of first act, I was quite disgusted with a number of them, something I feared would make it near impossible to care about what happened to these characters after intermission. However, much in thanks to Austin Pendleton's delicate and humanizing direction, it turns out to be a futile effort not to feel for these characters. In fact, you may recognize your feelings are something akin to the feelings we experience with our own family members: the ability to be irate with someone and still wish the best for them.
Perhaps the character the audience feels this anger most toward is Daniel, played by Steve Haggard in the stand-out performance of the cast. Haggard is not afraid for the audience to dislike him and never betrays his characters' aggressiveness, which makes it all the more rewarding (and surprising) as an audience member when you sympathize with him.
Walt Spangler's scenic design creates a beautiful and detailed living space for the family along with a little something more that leaves room for symbolic interpretation - although, perhaps too much room. By the end of the show, when an obvious purpose didn't show itself for this added space, I almost felt the need to make a second visit to simply watch this other piece of the set (and catch the differences in lighting, thanks to Keith Parham) to form a concrete interpretation.