BWW Reviews: The Guthrie's TRIBES Reminds Us to Really Listen
How often do we take for granted our sense of hearing? Our human existence is so intricately connected with the world of sound--from music, to movies, to simply talking on the phone to a loved one--when left without sound, most people might feel lost, painfully alone, or even go insane. Imagine now, if you lived in a world of constant silence and sound never even existed--at least for you. This is Billy's world.
Nina Raine's TRIBES is a play that actively engages and challenges the audience while still laying it all out there for those struggling to infer much on their own. It reminds us that there is so much to value in listening, and human connection.
Billy (John McGinty) is the son of Beth (Sally Wingert) and Christopher (Stephen Schnetzer), the youngest of three and deaf. Surrounded by a family of boisterous, opinionated and highly out-spoken archetypes-all of which were too busy, or too self-involved to bother teaching him to sign--he struggles but quiet amongst the chaos, it's clear from the end of the very first scene that Billy although part of a family, is alone.
Mother and father are middle-aged British novelists and intellectuals (never afraid to offer a word or two) uncomfortably sharing their home with their three adult children - Daniel (Hugh Kennedy), struggling with both mental illness and his master's thesis on language; Ruth (Anna Reichert), a lonely, aspiring opera singer who craves her disinterested father's attention; and Billy, who was born deaf and catches what little he can from his family's fractious dinner arguments by lip-reading and speaking aloud.
Having no understanding of any other way of life, Billy is content living in the confines of his sheltered and chaotic lifestyle until he meets Sylvia (Tracey Maloney). The product of two deaf parents, and on the road to losing her own hearing, Sylvia understands Billy and is able to not only teach him the sign language skills he lacks, but also introduce him to others in the deaf community. With Sylvia's help, Billy is finally able to face his family and issue the threat every misunderstood child has faced-learn to live with me or learn to live without me.
While the first act is well written, moving and quite thought provoking, I know I'm not alone in my theory that the second act; however, faces its share of problems. It's convoluted, it instructs instead of suggests, it chugs along dramatically but slowly and ultimately much of it could be trimmed down or revised, which is no fault of anyone but Raine.
The performances in this production are tremendous--each member of the ensemble elevates the game for their stage counterparts, creating a production that doesn't feel lopsided or unbalanced. It allows you to focus in and be removed from your own world only to be dropped smack down amongst the action on a set designed by Alexander Dodge.
At the end of this two-and-a-half hours, don't expect this play to put a bow on the whole story. It doesn't fill in all the blanks, nor does it promise a happy ending--it makes you think and isn't that the purpose of theatre?
Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, 612.377.2224, guthrietheater.org
Photo Credit: Tracey Maloney (Sylvia) and John McGinty (Billy) in the Guthrie Theater's production of Tribes, by Nina Raine. Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, set design by Alexander Dodge, costume design by Anne Kennedy and lighting design by Josh Epstein. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.