Also see Nancy's review of One Man, Two Guvnors
SpeakEasy starts the season off strong with this beautifully written play. The first thing you'll notice upon entering the Roberts Studio Theatre is the unusual configuration with seating on all four sides of a platform set. Scenic designer Cristina Todesco creates a home that reflects its occupants, with rows of bookshelves flanking a central dining table, comfortable chairs for reading or conversation, a baby grand piano, and an efficient galley kitchen area. Entrances and exits use all four corners of the stage, implying the other rooms of the house and the external world. Projection screens hang above the set.
We are introduced to the family as they engage in their blood sportconversationat the dining table. Billy (James Caverly) watches his father Christopher (Patrick Shea), brother Daniel (Nael Nacer) and sister Ruth (Kathryn Myles) volley verbal shots, while his mother Beth (Adrianne Krstansky) acts as a quasi referee. Quite often, the arguments revolve around language (the subject matter of Daniel's thesis), and everyone jockeys for position in the hierarchy of the family. Although he does his best to keep up by lip reading, Billy often asks what's going on, only to be told that he doesn't need to know or to be given a quick synopsis. Despite the bickering, we get the strong impression that the members of the family love each other and that they coalesce around Billy.
As a result of his key place in the family constellation, Billy causes a seismic shift in their dynamic when he takes his first steps into the deaf community and brings home his new (and first) love interest Sylvia (Erica Spyres). The hearing daughter of deaf parents who happens to be going deaf herself, Sylvia is skilled in American Sign Language and helps Billy acclimate to its use. His parents had eschewed training him in ASL, intending to incorporate him into a normal (read: superior) life. Showing his disdain while insulting more than one group, Christopher calls the deaf "the f***ing Muslims of the handicapped world." Billy takes it all in as his family attacks Sylvia as the representative of the world they fear, loathe and misunderstand.
Raine masterfully portrays the parallel struggles of each member of the family to communicate and be understood. The father, like Mr. Darling in Peter Pan, bemoans the presence of all those children in his house and unsuccessfully tries to bark his way to top dog status. Beth is working on a "marriage breakdown detective novel" while scrapping to have her voice heard in the cacophony. Daniel is self-obsessed, hears voices, and sucks up copious amounts of air. Perhaps seeking a way to differentiate from the writers around her, Ruth aspires to be an opera singer and find a boyfriend. They take little notice of the quiet one until he announces his vow of silence, challenging the rest of the family to fit into his new world.
Director M. Bevin O'Gara is becoming an undisputed master at mounting plays with deaf themes and characters. Tribes is her third such project (Clybourne Park and Love Person) and, with the assistance of ASL interpreters, she clearly conveys her vision to the cast and the audience. The script contains a mix of spoken English and ASL (with subtitles streaming on the overhead screens) so we experience the dichotomy of communication styles that Billy injects into the family. With one eye, the hearing members of the audience have to watch the actors sign while reading the subtitles with the other. Although it can be discomforting, it is precisely this visceral quality that drives home the crucial message of the play and creates a magnet hold on the hearts and minds of the theatergoers.
The performances here are also magnetic across the board, but you can't take your eyes off Caverly, Spyres and Nacer. Billy and Sylvia meet cute in a sweet scene where the actors display instant chemistry. They are totally in sync with each other and it is joyful to watch their burgeoning romance. Caverly gives a primer on the spectrum of Deaf culture; as a deaf actor who prefers ASL, he plays Billy's speaking scenes earnestly, but blossoms along with his character when his lines are signed. The body language and facial expressions inherent in ASL are totally theatrical. Spyres holds her own with ASL and conveys the mélange of emotions Sylvia feels as she faces the loss of hearing. Without uttering a word, she tells us everything we need to know when she sits down at the piano at the end of the first act.
As much as the family revolves around Billy, heretofore the fair-haired son, Daniel strives to draw attention to himself, often with negative outbursts. However, he is a complex character and Nacer is attuned to all of his facets. He is alternately smart, glib, bratty, depressed, disarming, disingenuous and sympathetic, using his body and movements to express the appropriate trait. There are many highly charged moments when Nacer and Shea go toe to toe, the latter exemplifying a man who can no longer understand, let alone control, his universe. Myles' and Krstansky's characters are drawn a bit narrower, but they each have a moment to display their existential angst, and they provide some necessary softness and empathy which are in short supply in this family.
There are many things to watch and listen for in Tribes which add to the richness of the experience. Music is both aural and visual, as is language, and both are used as forms of communication in the play. The overlay of sound (designer Arshan Gailus) and lighting (designer Annie Wiegand) add texture and warmth. Little things, like Christopher donning headphones or Billy removing his hearing aids, have great impact in the moment. Much is said by silence and little is heard when the volume is loudest. In the end, everyone wants to be heard and known in their relationships, but the greatest love is expressed in a hug.
Tribes, performances through October 12 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com. Written by Nina Raine, Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara; Scenic Design, Cristina Todesco; Costume Design, Mary Lauve; Lighting Design, Annie Wiegand; Sound Design, Arshan Gailus; Projection Design, Garrett Herzig; Production Stage Manager, Adele Nadine Traub; Director of Artistic Sign Language, Sabrina Dennison; Dialect Coach, Annie Thompson; ASL Performance Interpreters, Wendy Jehlen, Chris Robinson
Cast: Nael Nacer, Adrianne Krstansky, Patrick Shea, Kathryn Myles, James Caverly, Erica Spyres
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo