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BWW Reviews: Artists Rep Looks at the TRIBES We Belong To

Most of us spend our days playing several different roles in life. We behave differently with our romantic partners, with our biological (or adoptive) families, with our coworkers, with our friends, and with strangers. We speak differently to our siblings than we do to our bosses, and somehow we manage to switch gears without incident - at least when we're sober. But what if your family speaks a completely different language from the other people in your life?

In Nina Raine's play Tribes, Billy is a young Englishman who lives with his family, a group of garrulous intellectuals who argue constantly and never hold back with each other. However, Billy is deaf, and his parents have tried to help him live a "normal" life, so they have never bothered to teach him sign language. He reads lips extremely well, but feels like an outsider among his parents and siblings. At a party, he meets Sylvia, a woman whose parents are deaf, and who is herself going deaf. She introduces him to the deaf community, teaches him to sign, and begins a romantic relationship with him. Billy is torn between his family and his new life, which includes a job reading lips on law-enforcement videos, and eventually he cuts himself off from his family, which has a devastating effect on them - and on his relationship with Sylvia.

Youthful rebellion against one's parents is not a new story, and Tribes doesn't break any new ground in its plot. However, the way the story is told is quite clever and illuminating. Subtitles covering the signed and unspoken language are projected on the set, and rather than just translating the American Sign Language, the titles also react to music, gestures, and characters' thoughts in a visually appealing way. The family in Tribes is a particularly verbal one; both parents are writers, Billy's brother is an academic (who hears voices and develops a stutter), and his sister is an aspiring opera singer. In some ways, Billy is the healthiest member of the family, and when he walks away because his family won't learn sign language, he rips the heart out of them, and they all begin to fall apart in different ways.

Director Damaso Rodriguez has come up with a solid cast and a great visual approach to the play's story. He's aided by set designer Tal Sanders and composer/sound designer Sharath Patel, who make the world of the play visually appealing; the music, sound, and projections keep us involved even when the script is less original, and we root for the characters throughout the story - all of them.

Amy Newman has the most difficult role as Sylvia. At the beginning she's chipper and sexy, but the family grills her mercilessly on the pros and cons of sign language versus English, and she nearly falls apart. Gradually Sylvia loses her hearing, and Newman modulates her speech to be less vivid, matching the character's medical condition as well as her mental state. Yet she never becomes bland - we're always on Sylvia's side. Joshua J. Weinstein is the other standout as Daniel, Billy's brother, who seems like a sarcastic jerk at the beginning, but as his mental health deteriorates, he becomes erratic and uncommunicative, and he earns great empathy by the end of the play.

Artists Rep resident artists Linda Alper and Michael Mendelson are excellent as usual as the parents of this brood, bringing their intelligence to bear on roles that are not thoroughly written; the mother is endlessly apologizing and the father is forever badgering people with rude questions, but in Alper's and Mendelson's experienced hands, the characters never become tiresome. As Ruth, Billy's sister, Kayla Lian does what she can with an underwritten role, and she's quite likable even if we never quite know what she wants.

Stephen Drabicki has played Billy in other productions before this, and perhaps he's played it a bit too often. He seems to be playing the early scenes of the play without connecting to the other actors (even to Newman, his character's romantic partner) or the character. When Billy stops speaking and begins to sign, Drabicki comes alive; his signed performance is passionate and moving, and he makes contact with the other people on stage. Sign language can be quite beautiful, and Drabicki knows how to make every gesture and movement have impact, and the ending of the play is beautifully handled.

Tribes will speak to anyone who's ever belonged to a family, be it a family of blood relatives, close friends, or comrades in arms. We all feel torn among our various roles in life. The conflict in Tribes will resonate with all of us, though the ending may feel a bit overly hopeful. Nothing wrong with optimism, right?

From This Author - Patrick Brassell