BWW Reviews: Studio Delivers Superb Production of Nina Raine's Award-Winning TRIBES
Studio Theatre is certainly on a roll this season presenting a slew of contemporary thought-provoking plays with productions worthy of national attention. In this regard, its production of British playwright Nina Raine's Tribes, with sensitive and precise direction by David Muse, is not much different than say Torch Song Trilogy or even the more recent offering from its 2ndStage, Edgar and Annabel. They all refrain from shying away from the moral complexities presented in the scripts, make audiences take notice in more ways than one, and pretty much offering some of the best acting and production concepts one might find in the DC area.
Tribes received much critical acclaim upon its premiere in the United Kingdom in 2010 and later received positive notices and saw high rates of ticket sales when it was presented Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre in 2012. Following the New York engagement, a whole host of regional theatres, including Studio, added it to their seasons. And why not? Apart from the ability to advertise an offering that was recently very 'hot' in New York, the play offers roles for deaf and hearing actors alike to sink their teeth into, largely nuanced explorations of complex issues of social importance, and put quite simply, a powerfully dynamic story.
When we first meet the family that Raine has conjured up in her mostly excellent script, it's clear that this is going to be one of those shows - a story about a dysfunctional family whose challenges are most heavily exposed around the dinner table and other normal family gatherings. Yet thanks to the layers that she presents within her examination of the family, she sets her play apart from the multitude of plays of this nature.
Patriarch Christopher (Michael Tolaydo) is a brash and bookish academic with a passion for language, but doesn't quite have the social intelligence to match his obviously high academic intellect. Matriarch Beth (Nancy Robinette) struggles with her relationship with her husband. She's a writer too, but Christopher doesn't put much stock into what she does. She's more keenly aware of what's happening with her children, but doesn't always know how to best handle the chaos that surrounds them and her. Daughter Ruth (Annie Funke), an aspiring singer, is a typical brooding 20-something, struggling with her place in the world and within her highly academically-oriented family. Sons Daniel (Richard Gallagher) and Billy (James Caverly) are extremely close, but have their own struggles. Daniel is also an aspiring writer seeking acceptance from his father and, as he struggles with self-doubt/worth, mental illness, and a reemerging childhood stutter, he's always relied on Billy for emotional support. Billy, deaf since birth, struggles with maintaining a place in the highly verbal family known for intense conversations and getting his parents to listen to him.
A decision to raise Billy as an oral, deaf person who reads lips, but does not use sign language to communicate has complicated Billy's own self-identity. He was raised in a hearing environment with little accommodation to his deafness because of Christopher's strong opinions about Deaf culture/community and the sophistication (or lack therof) of sign language. Yet, he also can't very well communicate with or identify with other deaf/Deaf people due to the language and cultural barriers. When he meets Sylvia (Helen Cespedes) at an art event, they form a bond that opens up his world in more ways than one. Sylvia, daughter to two deaf parents, is also losing her hearing. She teaches him sign language and introduces him to the Deaf community. As she comes to terms with - some days better than others - with her own declining hearing, Billy becomes more confident in his ability to express himself in a way that works best for him, not what's necessarily most convenient for his family. This shift gives way to even more explosive arguments in the already volatile household. In the end, a debate ensues about what it means to listen, the association between language and feeling, and what it means to belong and be understood in such a way that's not only intellectually rigorous - par for the course in a family such as this one - but also emotionally rich. The latter is something that's a little harder for the family to contend with, leading to powerful breakthroughs on the empathy front, but appropriately no resolutions to the hard questions.