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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Phoenix Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of August: Osage County and Ain't Misbehavin'

Marshall Glass, Dion Johnson, Cathy Dresbach, Caroline Wagner, Willem Long and Gabrielle Van Buren
Nina Raine's Tribes was so impressive when it premiered Off Broadway in the Spring of 2012 that it got extended twice, ran for ten months, and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. The play is receiving its Arizona premiere in an equally impressive production at Phoenix Theatre.

Set in modern day London, Tribes focuses on Billy, deaf from birth, who has recently moved back home after graduating college. Billy is the only deaf person in his family and his parents decided when he was young to not let him learn sign language, teaching him to speak and read lips instead, with the belief that it would make him feel less disabled. Billy's entire family are creative intellectuals and, with brother Daniel and sister Ruth living at home as well, and his parent's always ready for an intellectual argument, Billy is never truly able to contribute to, and is barely able to follow, the many fast moving and loud conversations that his family has. Because of this, Billy, even though he can speak and read lips, basically lives silently amongst his family. It's not until he meets a young woman named Sylvia, who is on the verge of losing her hearing, that he feels like he has found a place to belong, a "tribe" of his own, and can finally feel what it means to be heard.

Playwright Raine poses the question: What is the best way to protect the family you love? Not letting Billy learn sign language, something that might make him feel part of the majority and not a member of the disabled deaf minority, doesn't allow him to fully feel part of a "tribe." His parents have done everything possible to make their family into a "tribe." By keeping the kids at home, finding fault with any possible partners for Daniel and Ruth, and continually involving their kids in the intellectual conversations, they feel they are protecting all of their children, not just Billy. However, they also end up hurting them, even while they are doing what they think is best for them. But the real genius of Raine's play is how she uses Billy's relationship with Sylvia, his learning sign language, and his involvement with the deaf community to make his family feel threatened as, since they don't know sign language, they are now the ones unable to understand what Billy is saying. The family can talk a lot but, with the exception of Billy, none of them ever truly listens.

Raine has created the character of Sylvia, someone who is in between the hearing and deaf worlds, as the perfect conduit to understand and explore this interesting topic. Both of Sylvia's parents are deaf, so she is already fluent in sign language, and she is now going deaf due to a genetic disease that she has already seen affect her older sibling. Sylvia and Billy feel lost and out of place in their worlds. This is a provocative play that raises several questions, with many emotional moments and six very interesting characters, and the Phoenix Theatre production has six exceptional actors in their cast.

In a sensitive and endearing performance, Willem Long is simply perfect as Billy. Long shows a wide range of emotions as Billy, from frustration, to rage, sadness to happiness—all expertly delivered. The whole family is desperate for validation in some form, even Billy, and when he gets his first job, he feels the pressure to achieve some sense of success. Long's delivery of the scenes in which Billy talks about his job are realistic and fit perfectly with the way Billy views his need for his family's endorsement. Just as realistic are his scenes of frustration with the family's ability to not hear him. The fact that Long is a hearing impaired actor only adds to the realistic nature of the play.

Long's interactions with Marshall Glass as Billy's brother Daniel are touching and sweet, just the way two brothers, one who is deaf, the other who has issues of his own, would be. When Long tells Glass about Sylvia saying "she's the one," you can see how Billy wants Daniel to share in his excitement about finding this girl. When Billy states after meeting Sylvia, "I was alone, now I'm not," you can also see the pain on Glass' face as Daniel realizes that Billy has felt alone all this time, even within such a close family. The brothers are very protective of each other, and Long and Glass work together to easily make us see the deep relationship and love between these characters.

Likewise, Long's interaction with Gabrielle Van Buren as Sylvia is completely realistic. We can see the love and affection Billy and Sylvia have for each other as well as the frustration they both feel from the outside influences on them. Van Buren is great showing how Sylvia holds her own in the intellectual combat scene with Billy's family, especially her interactions with Billy's father Christopher. The way she holds back when interpreting Billy's signing for his family, not sure if she should tell them some of the more damning information or not, shows the conflict that Sylvia has being stuck between the hearing and deaf worlds. Van Buren and Glass also expertly embody their characters' changes throughout the play—Van Buren in the way Sylvia is losing her hearing and Glass in the way the voices Daniel sometimes hears impact him, and how the stammer he had when he was a child returns with vengeance once conflict enters his life.

Billy's parents Christopher and Beth, played by Dion Johnson and Cathy Dresbach, are smart and opinionated but clearly love their children. That is another testament to Raine in how she doesn't make any single character an out and out enemy as each has his or her positive and negative traits. We clearly believe that Christopher and Beth think they were doing the right thing in not letting Billy learn sign language, as they believe that no one should be defined by their handicaps. Johnson is successful in showing the narrow-minded man who believes he knows what is best for his family. He is a former teacher who now writes books, and Johnson expertly gets across the character of a highly intellectual man. As Beth, who we learn is also writing a novel about a "fucked up family" as daughter Ruth states, Dresbach nicely shows the woman who loves her children deeply and tries to understand why they have issues with the "tribe" they've formed for them. When Beth states to Christopher "no one is ever good enough are they?" about their quick dismissal of their children's choice of partners, we quickly understand how insulated Beth and Christopher have made their family unit and how they don't want anyone to get in the way of what they've formed.

Caroline Wagner as Ruth, who is trying to find her "voice" as a singer, provide nice contributions to the family dynamic, including some lovely moments with her siblings, and she, like Glass, has created a realistic portrayal of a sibling relationship. The way she deals with Billy and Daniel's afflictions is genuine, touching and heartfelt.

Director Paul Barnes does an excellent job of accurately showing the many questions Raine poses, and also quickly getting across the many points of the family dynamic—from the first scene where Billy is seated at the family dinner table with his back to us for the entire heated conversation the rest of the family is having around him, unable to understand or contribute at all, to the nervousness shown by Christopher, Beth and Daniel when Billy brings Sylvia home for the first time and the three of them keep changing the knives at the table. The way Barnes uses touch in the play is also beautiful; how Billy touches Daniel in the way two close brothers would interact, and Billy holding Sylvia's hand, both add a lovely sense of realism to the production.

The set design by Eric Beeck is extremely creative. With superb attention to detail that includes a huge number of stacks of books and an abundance of clutter, the set design forms a cocoon, as if the family is trying to insulate themselves, their "tribe," from the outer world. CeCe Sickler's costumes and Mike Eddy's lighting designs are equally effective in creating both realistic characters and a convincing environment.

Ultimately about someone finding their voice and realizing how to use it, Tribes is a thought-provoking play that will make you think about the way we speak to each other, the dynamics of family, and how we treat people that have disabilities. The Phoenix Theatre production is exceptional, with an excellent cast, concise direction and impressive creative elements.

Tribes runs through February 16th at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602) 254-2151

Director: Paul Barnes
Resident Dramaturge/Dialect Coach: Pasha Yamotahari
Sign Language Consultant: Missy Keast Lighting Designer: Mike Eddy
Scenic Designer: Eric Beeck
Costume Designer: CeCe Sickler
Sound Designer: Charl T. Brems
Props Designer: Katie McNamara
Assistant Production Manager: Karla Frederick
Stage Manager: Katherine Roll Lang

Billy: Willem Long
Beth: Cathy Dresbach
Ruth: Caroline Wagner
Daniel: Marshall Glass
Sylvia: Gabrielle Van Buren
Christopher: Dion Johnson

Photo: Phoenix Theatre

--Gil Benbrook

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