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Three adult children have all returned to the family home after having lived away for periods of time. They are Daniel (Thomas DellaMonica), a graduate student who is blocked on completing his thesis; Ruth (Dina Thomas), an aspiring opera singer whose career is going nowhere; and Billy (Russell Harvard), who is hearing-impaired. None of the children are particularly happy with the necessity of living with their father, Christopher (Jeff Still), who has "retired" from academia to write books full time, or their mother, Beth (Lee Roy Rogers), who vaguely pursues a career as a studio artist.
The house is chaotic when the family is together. In an attempt to escape, Billy tries attending a social event for deaf people, an affiliation of which his family and particularly his father has never approved. There, he meets Sylvia (Meghan O'Neill), a woman who was born to deaf parents and, while currently hearing, is going deaf as the result of a congenital condition. Not only is Billy smitten with Sylvia but he also feels like he's found a "family of choice," as opposed to his dysfunctional family of origin.
Yet it is the interactions among the family of origin that take up much of the play, and these interactions would not be of much interest were it not for David Cromer's intricate and careful direction. The family has tried to treat Billy as "normal" and has insisted that Billy lip-read rather than learn to sign. But the family dynamic of loud, overlapping, dialogue and constant movement leaves Billy trying to look polite but obviously disconnected because lip-reading is impossible. Billy has also learned to read patterns in the behavior of people around him, and he makes assumptions about what people are telling him based on some lip-reading but mostly on pattern recognition. This tendency, which Billy takes for granted and others around him don't notice, has disastrous consequences when Billy makes a bid for independence.
Mr. Cromer is also sensitive to the family dynamics outlined in Ms. Raine's play, as characters engage and withdraw, become prominent or fade into the background. Especially interesting is how Mr. Cromer and Mr. Dellamonica make Daniel's quirks become full-blown symptoms of mental illness. Is it possible that the family needs to have a disabled member, such that as Billy becomes more self-sufficient Daniel necessarily becomes dependent to the point of insanity?
One could quibble with how Ms. Raine handles her dramaturgy, particularly in act two, but I don't think it matters much. The New York-based team has adapted the Barrow Street Theatre production splendidly to the larger and more spacious confines of the Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre. Mr. Harvard has been with the project since its beginning, and it's hard to imagine another actor in the role of Billy. Still, the other performers were his match, even if they might have been less sympathetic. And, while all of the creative elements shine, I would single out for special praise Scott Pask's beautiful set that hides spaces where text may be projected when signs are hurled fast and furiously by the performers.
Tribes has a relatively short run (only through July 21, when a stage version of the film Sideways opens in one of the other La Jolla Playhouse theatres), so get your tickets soon. You'll be glad you made it a priority to see this fascinating production.
Tribes performs Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8:00pm; Sun at 7:00pm; Matinees: Saturday/Sunday at 2:00pm, through July 21 at the Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre on the La Jolla Playhouse campus. Tickets are available by calling (858) 550-1010 or online at LaJollaPlayhouse.org.
La Jolla Playhouse presents Tribes, by Nine Raine. Directed by David Cromer, with Scott Pask (Scenic Design), Tristan Raines (Costume Design), Keith Parham (Lighting Design), Daniel Kluger (Sound Design), and Jeff Sugg (Projection & Video Designer).
The cast includes Thomas DellaMonica (Daniel), Russell Harvard (Billy), Meghan O'Neill (Sylvia), Lee Roy Rogers (Beth), Jeff Still (Christopher), and Dina Thomas (Ruth).