By: Oct. 02, 2013
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Written by Nina Raine; directed by M. Bevin O'Gara; scenic design by Christina Todesco; costume design by Mary Lauve; lighting design by Annie Wiegand; sound design by Arshan Gailus; projection design by Garrett Herzig; production stage manager, Adele Nadine Traub

Cast in order of Speaking:

Nael Nacer as Daniel; Adrianne Krstansky as Beth; Patrick Shea as Christopher; Kathryn Myles as Ruth; James Caverly as Billy; Erica Spyres as Sylvia

Performances and Tickets:

Now through October 19, with an added ASL performance on Sunday, October 13 at 3 p.m.; SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston; tickets are $25-$60 ($5 discount for seniors), available online at or by calling the Box Office at 617-933-8600

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

-- from "The Sounds of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel

There's more to listening than hearing, and more to speaking than talking in SpeakEasy Stage Company's moving production of Tribes running now through October 19 at the Boston Center for the Arts. In this beautifully crafted play by Nina Raine directed with exceptional grace by M. Bevin O'Gara, both sounds and silence are used evocatively to dramatize the isolation caused by deafness and dysfunctional communication.

In Tribes Billy (James Caverly) is a sweet young man who was born deaf into a family of chattering academics. His father, mother and brother are all writers of one sort or another, and his sister aspires to sing opera. Although their professions each seem to suggest that language and self-expression are essential to them, they use words cruelly, like intellectual weapons. They harangue but they don't connect.

Billy's older brother Daniel (Nael Nacer) spews toxic sarcasm toward everyone in the family except Billy. Sister Ruth (Kathryn Myles) denigrates herself constantly - that is, when she's not taunting Daniel for being an equally big loser. Parents Christopher (Patrick Shea) and Beth (Adrianne Krstansky) endlessly debate, bicker, and deride. Dad also heaps a continuous stream of expletives on the troubled Daniel while Mom amiably tries to placate and deflect with humor.

The family's endless garble of overlapping conversations and rapid-fire repartee makes Billy's deafness all the more challenging to him. Raised to "assimilate" by reading lips and speaking orally, he can only follow what he can see. It doesn't help that his family blithely ignores him whenever they go off on a tirade. Even when Billy asks what has gotten them so obviously upset, they dismiss him with a cursive, "It's nothing. It's not important."

Billy eventually turns the tables on his family when he meets and begins to date Sylvia (Erica Spyres), a woman born hearing to deaf parents but now going deaf herself. Sylvia teaches Billy American Sign Language, and as he becomes more and more proficient, he decides he will no longer read lips or speak. At last he has found a way to give full expression to his thoughts and feelings, and unless his family now learns his language, they will find themselves on the outside looking in on him.

As Billy, James Caverly avoids the trap of being heroically disabled. He is neither martyr nor magician, and his portrayal of the person the family admittedly "loves the most" is endearing but unsentimental. Caverly, a graduate of Gallaudet University and an alumnus of The National Theatre of the Deaf, draws the audience into his world by seeming to absorb every interaction into his body. His eyes watch every move attentively and strain to capture and understand. When he finally unleashes his voice through a combination of oral speech and animated sign, he does so with a torrent of pent-up emotion.

Caverly also manifests subtle differences in Billy's body language to convey changes in his feeling or tone. When his family is on a rampage, he sits impatiently but passively, suggesting equal parts agitation and boredom. During late-night talks with his brother in the kitchen, he is both consoling and concerned. With Sylvia, he is relaxed and playful, conversing easily through ASL. As he makes jokes and smiles spontaneously, we realize what he's been missing all this time.

While Tribes does discuss the differences between the hearing and the Deaf communities, the play doesn't make a case for one over the other when it comes to Billy's happiness. Each "home" in the play - Billy's family versus the Deaf social group he attends with Sylvia - is hierarchical and insular in its own way. It's up to Billy to determine where he fits in most comfortably, and to what degree he aligns with either. Sylvia, too, must decide her future, now that she is losing her hearing. Since childhood she has functioned well by straddling both worlds. Once she becomes deaf, her balance shifts dramatically.

As Sylvia, Erica Spyres gives another in a growing list of delicate but profound performances. Both confident and passionate, she delights one minute and breaks your heart the next. When we first meet Sylvia Spyres is vivacious and outgoing, but as her hearing loss progresses, she grows sadder and more reserved.

In a devastating sequence at the end of Act I, Spyres conveys the great tragedy of Sylvia's inability to hear by playing softly on the piano. The music she creates becomes more and more distorted until there's nothing left but a roar. As she plays, Spyres caresses the keys as if she's saying goodbye to an old friend. In that instant the audience experiences quite viscerally what it must be like to go deaf. It is a brilliant moment performed exquisitely. It is also quite stunning.

Nael Nacer also wrenches the heart as Billy's tormented brother, Daniel. A paranoid schizophrenic who suffers from auditory delusions and unrelenting psychological anguish when stressed, he fends off his voices the best he can with pills, loud music and anger. Billy's gentleness, however, seems to calm Daniel, so when Billy stops talking to him along with the rest of the family, his condition worsens.

Nacer is absolutely riveting as a man trying to jettison hostile voices from his head. His mental pain obviously fatigues his entire body, so when he's with his brother he seems to be trying to channel the silence that Billy has experienced since birth. Finally reduced to stammering and twitching, Daniel ironically loses his capacity to speak just as Billy finds his.

While Tribes could easily draw the parents as stereotypical monsters, neither is unsympathetic in the hands of Patrick Shea and Adrianne Krstansky. As Christopher, Shea puts an ivory tower spin on his hyper-critical ranting and raving, making him more of an equal opportunity bigot than a totally abusive father and husband. Krstansky portrays Beth as an educated Edith Bunker, a tough-tender sparring partner for Shea who vacillates between provocateur and pacifier. Warm and open-hearted, and even a little scatter-brained at times, Krstansky holds the family together with unconditional, albeit oddly demonstrated, love.

Kathryn Myles plays the less pivotal role of Ruth, Billy's petulant older sister. An opera singer who hates the sound of her own voice, she has never really emerged from adolescence. Huffing, puffing, and pouting when things don't go her way, she manages to deflect most of the family's negative attention by not taking anything too seriously. Myles injects just the right dose of vulnerability and humor to make Ruth more than simply annoying.

The physical world created by the SpeakEasy design team is as much a character in Tribes as any of the people inhabiting it. The set consists of various conversation areas each accustomed to having people linger: a kitchen with a functional breakfast bar; a dining room with a well used table and chairs; a living room filled with sofas and ottomans surrounding a book-strewn coffee table; a piano around which people can comfortably gather while sipping cocktails or singing along. All are configured in a rectangular playing area at the center of the black box theater's floor. The audience is seated on all four sides within touching distance. The impact is intimate and intense.

Large screens suspended above the playing area flash with slide projections that sync with sounds and actions. Visual patterns illustrate sound waves and musical notes, and supra-titles translate Billy and Sylvia's American Sign Language. Silence becomes a potent element, too, not only when it is a barrier to communication but also when it is the best way to be understood.

Tribes is an unflinching and innovative play that is both thrilling and thought-provoking. It has been extended one extra week through Saturday, October 19. Given this company's breath-taking production, you may never experience sounds and silence quite the same way again.

PHOTOS BY CRAIG BAILEY/PERSPECTIVE PHOTO: Erica Spyres as Sylvia and James Caverly as Billy; Nael Nacer as Daniel, Kathryn Myles as Ruth, Adrianne Krstansky as Beth, James Caverly and Patrick Shea as Christopher; James Caverly and Nael Nacer (background); Erica Spyrles and James Caverly; the cast of Tribes; the cast on the set of Tribes


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