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.
In the end, Raine thankfully does not present us with one of those shockingly sweet and at times cringe-worthy stories about people with disabilities overcoming all odds, a simplistic story about family bonds being tested or strengthened, or a heavy philosophical discussion about the limits of language and cultural identity. Although all of these elements are at play, she's able to weave them together and create a story that's just as much about one thing as it is about the others, fundamentally grounded in an exploration of what it means to listen/be understood - a theme that transcends all of the threads.
Thanks the solid use of a central theme, the story doesn't feel too much like there's a little bit of everything in the kitchen sink thrown in for the sake of melodrama. Granted, the story does get a bit too melodramatic in the latter half of Act II for my taste, but in a lesser playwright and director's hands, the employment, romantic, and illness-related situations that come to fruition - not to be spoiled here - would have probably felt even more like the Lifetime Movie of the week than they do here.
Raine's adeptness with the intricacies of language and aptitude for putting forth witty, honest dialogue is chief among the reasons why her script, even in the most eye-roll inducing moments, is so strong and perfectly matched to the family she is exploring. The solid character development and consistency in how each character's unique attributes impact how he/she reacts to a situation also contribute to the strength of the story, and her honest telling of it. So too does her solid understanding of many of the aspects of Deaf culture - the hierarchical nature of the community, for example, and the variety of opinions on integration with the hearing world at play - the philosophy of language, and the complexities involved in family decisions about how to raise a child who is deaf.
This is to say nothing of the consistently honest, real, and unflinching performances that each of the six cast members give. There are no weak links in the ensemble and everyone is an integral contributor to the success of the play.
Tolaydo, tasked with playing the most unlikeable character of the lot, is appropriately gruff, arrogant, volatile, and clueless about the demands of social interaction without presenting himself as a stereotype. Robinette gives a masterclass on presenting a complex woman and achieving the perfect blend of meekness and fortitude.
As the offspring, Funke shows a penchant for comedy and sarcasm and perfectly captures a sullen 20-something with more to offer than she probably gives herself credit for. Gallagher expertly handles the dramatic range of emotions his character displays - the rage, sadness and more - and can transform from being an arrogant, self-important jerk to one that has to deal with heart-wrenching, immense inner struggles with the drop of a hat. Caverly has an undeniable skill as an actor and his mastery of the most appropriate expression and reaction to use in every situation is award-worthy. Every moment is with purpose and is perfectly aligned to the predicament he is facing at every moment.
As outsider Sylvia, Cespedes proves she's also a master at revealing her character's inner conflicts in a natural way. Special props also go to her for learning sign language so well and being able to integrate it so seamlessly into her performance.
If there's a weak moment in the acting - and in the play itself - I would mention that it is when Daniel's childhood stutter returns and he struggles with his own emotional demons let alone with communication. While not the focus of the play, it is a crucial catalyst for the ending. Full disclosure here. I come at this part of the play from a very personal perspective. I stutter severely most of the time and don't know what it's like not to do so what I notice might not be what others do.
I won't go into the debate about what wrong messages might ensue when you happen to have a character with a mental illness also stutter because I think I get what the playwright is going for here - and it isn't to point out a link that's been scientifically proven to be wrong. At this point in the play, Daniel is in an emotionally dark place on account of Billy leaving and as such can no longer fully control some things he was (for one reason or another) able to previously overcome or at least prevent from completely impacting every aspect of his life - the voices and the stuttering. Like Billy, at this point in the story, he is struggling with communication and having people really hear him so opportunities for everyone to learn empathy come about. Nonetheless, the inclusion of this stuttering challenge to Daniel's character could - for uninformed audience members - send an unfortunate (even if unintentional) wrong message about stuttering being emotionally-driven. With greater explanation of the complexities of Daniel's backstory - even a cursory mention - that potential situation could be avoided.
While I commend Gallagher for taking on the challenge of presenting a character with a stutter in a way that's not particularly campy, I do have to say that, as someone who stutters and has known others who do, these moments come off as inauthentic at times. His take on a stutter is not the most horrible I've heard to be sure, for that honor belongs to numerous others who have graced stages in New York and in DC. Yet, with each non-fluent moment lasting almost the exact amount of time, occurring on only the first syllable of every word, and accompanied by the same sideways head movement, it comes across to my trained ear/eye as too rehearsed, planned out, almost too precise, and too pat. That's not really how it works for me or anyone else, but I give him (and likely the director) an A for effort.
Strong production elements - Wilson Chin's set, Ryan Rumery's sound design, and Erik Trester's projection designs - also make this offering a worthy one. Chin's attention to detail gives us great insight into what the family values and how academics play heavily into how they interact with one another. Rumery's cacophonous sound designs serve to underlie the important messages about language and listening to the subtext of what is being said in the play as to do Trester's projections.
All in all, this production needs to be experienced. It's one of the most solid I've seen this season.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.