Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Reviews: Dia-TRIBES at Circuit

David Morgan's detailed set design for Circuit Playhouse's production of Nina Raine's TRIBES "speaks volumes" (no pun intended) for the noisy, ego-driven family the audience is about to meet: Piano, stage left; "intellectual" clutter scattered about; books everywhere; and - oh, yes - a liquor bottle on the table. The members almost immediately begin to descend on stage, chattering away with the kind of overlapping, hyper-intense dialogue that would make the late Robert Altman smile and put fingers in both of his ears. Nothing seems in harmony hear -- everything is a cacophonous, confused kind of roar. At the center, as a kind of eye to this verbal hurricane, is "Billy," sweetly casting his gaze from one pair of lips to another, as that is the only way he can absorb the conversations that are colliding about him.

The father, "Chris," is a captious academic, opinionated, bullying, and seemingly without patience for anyone except the apparently docile "Billy"; mother "Beth" is a struggling novelist who patiently absorbs the barbs hurled at her by her husband and tries to keep this rocking boat of a family from overturning; Billy's older brother "Daniel," once afflicted with stuttering, grapples with a thesis on words and meanings - and can't seem to find the words to make it work; and "Ruth," the sister, is an aspiring opera singer (Daniel harangues against opera and teases her that the words don't make sense). (Yes, Raine is fairly insistent on all this irony; after all, this is a play about language and how we communicate with - and without -- it.) Both siblings have, to the eye-rolling regret of their impatient father, come home to roost.

Amid all the verbal fires and misfires that surround him, Billy seems fairly placid - that is, until he meets "Sylvia," a young woman born with hearing but in the process of eventually losing it. In a tender scene during which they emotionally connect, she begins to teach him sign language, something for which his self-absorbed family never had any time. Romance ensues fairly quickly, and then . . . there comes the family dinner "from hell" (reminiscent of that in Tracy Letts' AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY - Irene Crist, who plays "Beth," had the thespic pleasure to dine there as well). As the various members of the family scrutinize her and erode her comfort level, she moves to a piano and begins to play a few notes, and for the first time, they find themselves "without a voice," as they quietly listen to the beauty of the piece.

Once Sylvia moves in with the family, older brother Chris becomes increasingly distressed by the fact that Billy is being pulled away from the family; and that will drive Chris to a bold act (I can't give that away), a kind of prelude to Sylvia and Billy's moving out. Then, Billy begins to find a new kind of "home" with those who communicate with signing, and in one of the strongest scenes in the play, he confronts his family, refuses to communicate verbally, and , with Sylvia as an interpreter, lashes out at them for not making an effort to learn signing and for forcing him to communicate their way. The play could have almost ended there, but Raine allows other interesting threads to follow. Sylvia becomes increasingly distraught by her own loss of hearing, as the world recedes in a kind of muffled roar. Billy has never known such loss: He has always been deaf. Will Sylvia's remaining with him only perpetuate her world of deafness? Will Billy, in fact, successfully - or wisely - use the voice that signing has enabled him to find? Or will all that heretofore pent-up silence lead to an unfortunate exaggeration of expression?

Director Dave Landis occupies his director's chair with authority, and his familiar, gifted cast more than do justice to Raine's script. Barclay Roberts is Memphis' "go to guy" for parts that require attitude and bluster (though he's more varied than that - his woebegone "Herbie" in GYPSY a short while back was a heart-rending performance), and he easily dominates as the critical head of the family. As the beleaguered "Beth," Irene Crist suggests a woman who knows too well her husband's less desirable characteristics, but is willing to take a deep breath, don a kimono (just to shut him up), and make the effort to calm everyone about her. Morgan Howard is, as always, an interesting actress; her "Ruth" can't seem to sustain a relationship with anyone of the opposite sex, and she is stressed that her insufficient talent as a singer will never secure her the kind of career she has always envisioned. Yet, for me, the part of the insecure "Daniel" is perhaps the most interesting in the play. As he not only loses his grip on the younger brother for whom he has always cared, and as he once again finds himself losing his battle with stuttering, his personal disintegration presents a wonderful acting challenge, and Cameron Reeves bravely inhabits the part. (Had Arthur Miller had a hand in the writing, I could imagine a "Willy Loman"-like ending for such a character.) As the young, hearing-challenged lovers. Devin Altizer and large-eyed Julia Masotti are touching and true: The audience has a very easy time rooting for them. Their signing seems natural and unrehearsed, and Mr. Altizer, in particular, is extremely convincing as the "deaf" "Billy" - his speaking voice has the very character of one who has never distinctly heard a sound. Ms. Masotti, on the other hand, poignantly limns the fear of a young woman bidding adieu to music and the sounds that are deserting her. Special notice should be taken of Sound Designer Zach Badreddine, who has added some much-appreciated touches during the emotional moments of the play. Through May 3.


Featured at the Theatre Shop

T-Shirts, Mugs, Phone Cases & More

Related Articles View More Memphis Stories

From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)