Review: TRIBES Explores the Bonds of Speaking and Listening

By: Mar. 31, 2014

Portland Stage's production of Nina Raine's 2010 play,Tribes, offers a thoughtful exploration of the bonds forged by communication. The play, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London and later Off-Broadway, is a scathingly funny, warm look at a dysfunctional family and their interaction with their deaf son, Billy, who has not been raised in a deaf culture, but rather by his hearing parents and his siblings.

Now with their three adult children unemployed and living at home - Ruth is an aspiring opera singer with minimal prospects and Daniel has begun to hear voices - Beth and Christopher try to cope with the tricky dynamics of this new family life. Their interaction is complicated by Billy's meeting with Sylvia, a young woman losing her hearing, who has been raised to sign and to navigate deaf culture. The two fall in love, and their relationship prompts Billy to question his upbringing, his communication with his family, and the "tribe" to which he belongs.

Raine's play is, for the most part, well plotted though the transition from Act I's boisterous wit to Act II's darker tone is a trifle abrupt, and the theme of Billy's "connecting the dots" could be better developed. Nonetheless, Raine's characters are colorfully drawn. She has an astute ear for natural dialogue, and her play raises some fascinating issues about the ways human beings speak and listen and how the understandings they share defines their lives. At times, her probing of these issues grows pedantic, but for the most part, the characters' struggle to be heard is poignant and gripping, especially in the final moments of the drama when Daniel signs a word that sums up all of the characters' yearnings.

The Portland Stage cast is first-rate as an ensemble, and they are to be complimented for the ease with which they recreate the British ambiance of the play. Elizabeth West is appropriately motherly and misguided as Beth, with Michael Sean McGuiness as a hectoring patriarch, terrified of losing control of his family. Kat Moraros makes a charming sister Ruth, and Kate FInch is affecting as Sylvia.

The principal emotional impact is wrought, however, in the taut and touching performances of Matthew Stewart Jackson as the mercurial, tormented Daniel and Garrett Zuercher as Billy, struggling heroically with every means at his disposal to speak. The bond between the brothers lights up the travails of the play, and the tension between Daniel's outrageous, extroverted nature and Billy's sensitive, shy one is electric. Zuercher's performance is compelling in his use of speech, signing, and an immensely communicative physicality.

Christopher Grabowski directs with a keen ear and eye for the multi-level communication methods of the play, and he uses Rohit Kapoor's set imaginatively to keep the action moving. Kapoor's décor consists of two roll-in units to evoke the London kitchen and a fly-in window which opens onto a sparkling moonlit sky. Much of the action is blocked around a long trestle table and chairs, rearranged for each scene. The visual effect is striking, but the repeated scene changes call too much attention to themselves, despite the precise choreography of the stage crew.

Bryon Winn's lighting design with its warm interior glow and crystalline diamond sky contrasts the sheltering and stifling family milieu with the limitless hopes and dreams in Billy's and Beth's hearts. Seth Asa Sengel rounds out the stylish production with an excellent sound design which showcases Raine's poetic use of music in the play from Ruth's listening to Dalilah's aria, to the appropriately wordless Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfl,y to the magical moment when Debussy's Clair de Lune explodes into the moonlit sky at the close of Act I.

Tribes offers its audience a glimpse into the worlds into which we withdraw and those from which we reach out to others. It sensitively probes the human dilemma of speaking and listening described by George Bernard Shaw in his maximthat the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. Despite the difficulties and heartbreaks along the way, at the end of Portland Stage's production of Tribes, one feels sure that this illusion has become reality.

Photo Courtesy of the Portland Stage Company, Aaron Flacke, photographer

Tribes runs until April 13, 2014 at the Portland Stage Company, 25 Forest Avenue, Portland, ME. Information at 207-774-0465 or