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Pittsburgh by Ann Miner

City Theatre

Also see Ann's review of An Iliad

Tad Cooley and Amanda Kearns
Nina Raine's Tribes had its North American premiere in a well-regarded Off-Broadway production at the Barrow Street Theatre in 2012. With some of that cast, including key lead actor Russell Harvard, intact, it played in Los Angeles and La Jolla in 2013, and since then has blazed a trail across the country, becoming one of the season's most produced plays. In a new production at City Theatre, directed by Stuart Carden, a mix of local and non-local actors bring to life a colorful family meeting a number of challenges. But it's much more than that nutshell.

The opening scene burst forth: parents Beth (Laurie Klatscher) and Christopher (John Judd) are spirited, opinionated, well-read, self-possessed and ... loud. They talk a lot, over each other, and without filter. With three grown children, they should be empty-nesters, but daughter Ruth (Robin Abramson) and son Daniel (Alex Hoeffler) are back home, and constantly verbally shredding each other beyond normal sibling bickering. Youngest son Billy (Tad Cooley) is ready to leave the nest. The downside to mom and dad, Beth and Daniel talking over each other without listening is that Billy, who is deaf, isn't given a chance to even know what's going on. He is an accomplished lip-reader, but the others rarely bother to face him and include him in the constant stream of talk. That said, there is love in this family, but also a lot of dysfunction.

When Billy meets a girl, Sylvia (Amanda Kearns), and becomes smitten, we learn more about why the rest of his family seems to ignore his deafness. Beth and Christopher raised Billy to be as close to a hearing person, a "normal" person, as possible. Mainstream schooling, no sign language—kind of throwing him in the pond, confident he will be able to swim. That sounds admirable, in a way, to show your child his deafness need not hold him back. But Sylvia opens up a new world for Billy—communicating through sign language and socializing with other deaf people. He's no longer struggling to keep up with conversations, he's part of them. But this draws Billy and his family into new conflicts, and Billy's independence breaks them apart.

Leading this solid cast is Tad Cooley in an understated and moving performance. He is always in the scene, even when the high-volume drama around him demands our attention. He shows the emergence of Billy, and his struggle with it, through levels of nuance. Cooley is supported well, particularly by John Judd as father Christopher, Alex Hoeffler as troubled brother Daniel, and Amanda Kearns in a distinctive performance as Sylvia, who has her own challenges. And Laurie Klatscher and Robin Abramson take their local careers to another level with their performances.

The only downside is that the play's London setting requires British accents for all and, unfortunately, they come and go.

Narelle Sissons' masterful set of home sweet home is rich, well-appointed, and an extension of Beth and Christopher's eccentric personalities. The set works in tandem with Mike Tutaj illustrative projections.

The City Theatre continues to bring a wide variety of new plays to Pittsburgh in accomplished productions. Artistic Director Tracy Brigden and Managing Director Mark R. Power's efforts in this direction are well appreciated, and Tribes is a fine example of what they do.

Tribes by Nina Raine, at Pittsburgh City Theatre, Mainstage, through March 30. For tickets and performance information, please call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit

Photo: Mark Garvin

See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.

-- Ann Miner

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