Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Morgan Dayley and Greg Anderson
Photo by Ray Renati
A returning adult son is welcomed to the dinner table by his dad: "Welcome back ... Join in and have an argument." And arguing is the modus operandi in this family of five where in the first two minutes of dinner, the father uses multiple times the "f-word" and the "c-word" in addressing his wife and the other two adult kids, bemoaning, "Why am I surrounded by my kids ... the parasites?" The daughter later chimes in, "I hate all of us living here again," while one of her brothers snipes and snips away in cynical, downright hateful tones at her and his parents. Only the returning son is quiet throughout all this cacophony of shouting and cursing, banging and bashing; and at the peak of this war of words, where there is so much talking and no obvious listening, all others stomp out in anger, leaving him alone at his own welcome-home dinner. For a guy who is deaf in a family where no one else is, we as audience are beginning to wonder if he is not the luckiest of the bunch. So starts Pear Theatre's production of the 2012 Drams Desk Outstanding Play winner, Tribes, by Nina Raine; and so begins an often riveting, sometimes hilarious, always compelling evening of live theatre.

Twenty-something Billy has moved back home where his older brother Daniel and slightly younger sister Ruth live with parents Beth and Christopher in an English household where everyone seems to be in dire competition on who is most intelligent, most creative, and most likely to be left standing in triumph after the next family brawl. Brought up to read lips and never to associate with anything related to the capital "D" community (as in 'deaf'), Billy seems to be the only one who ever hears what is really going on around him through his intense observations and acute sensitivity. In this family, everyone is trying to find a voice others will pay attention to, be it Ruth's feeble pursuit of opera, Daniel's failing attempts to write a coherent dissertation, Beth's going-nowhere "marriage breakdown, detective novel," or Christopher's computer Chinese language lessons of the same words over and again. Billy's meeting Sylvia, his soon-to-be-girlfriend who is fast going deaf, provides him an avenue to find his voice through signing, something his family has prohibited in the past as isolating him from the "normal" society around him. Beginning his own journey to develop this voice provides new freedom from the tribe he has known all his life and catapults the rest of his family into new, tempestuous travails as he ventures beyond their reach.

Greg Anderson, himself hearing impaired, is brilliant as Billy, repeatedly and clearly expressing entire paragraphs without moving a muscle in his face. When he does speak with words devoid of hard consonants and in volumes and tones not in the range expected, all the time using expressive hands even when not signing, he communicates with fervent emotion and intensity what he is seeing but never hearing. His Billy blossoms in front of us with a new energy and eagerness for life as he falls in love for the first time with a woman and with a tribe he has not previously known: other non-hearing people like himself.

Sylvia was born a hearing child of two deaf parents but now is losing the world of sound due to a genetic disorder. Morgan Dayley plays this vivacious, gregarious new girlfriend of Billy's who is increasingly terrified about losing who she really is as she leaves all recognizable music and voices and enters a realm of constant buzz, discordance, and soon-to-be silence. Whether signing a poem with artistic grace, going toe-to-toe with Billy's family with fire in her own eyes, or succumbing with goose-bumped thrill to the sweet persistence of a new lover, Ms. Dayley shines as Sylvia. She also gives the performance of the evening when, with a mixture of terror, anger, and disgust, she describes what it is like losing daily another part of herself as she transitions from hearing to deaf.

Equally absorbing are the other performances of this cast. Kendall Callaghan's Ruth struggles to be seen and heard amidst all the family chaos around her short stature ("I feel like a fucking bonsai tree"). She does not hesitate to over-dramatize when need be for the sake of attention (suddenly collapsing on the floor or turning on a waterfall of tears) but is also the one who most often names with sarcasm the elephant in the room ("Is it me, or is it really stressful around here?"). Jarrod Pirtle as Daniel, plagued by maddening voices in his head (mostly of his mother and dad nagging at him), is at times fiery (and even funny) in his lashing out in frustration of a life going nowhere from a family he wants to escape. At other times, he is wilted in a lifeless mound with hands hugging bowed head on table as he retreats to his own domain apart from everyone around him.

Jackie O'Keefe is Beth, the author/mother/wife who, without cracking a smile, says she will decide who her novel's murderer is after the book is finished. She time and again fights, screams, and curses with the best of them but also tends to be the first to change her steely gaze of hardened combatant into longing eyes that so desire a child's or husband's inclusion and affection. Rounding out this familial tribe is Dan Roach as Christopher, the staunch protector of its boundaries, a father who is quick to terrorize into retreat his kids' chosen mates and who snidely looks down as inferior anyone too outside his sense of tribe (e.g., Muslims, northerners, those who favor music versus the written word). He also is shockingly dumbfounded whenever members of his family suggest he is not being loving after he has just called them a shit (or worse). Roach masters pompous, never-wrong Christopher in ways that are both captivating and repelling to watch.

Norman Beamer has created an English, middle-class home whose inviting and comfortable fa├žade defies the battleground often taking place there. Sara Sparks' lighting design deftly underscores Billy's isolation as the only non-hearing member of his family and often as a member of his own tribe of one. Animations by John Beamer creatively widen the many ways communication occurs, including thoughts that pour from brothers' intent stares, silent signings between lovers in the midst of shouting quarrelers, and a piano's music that becomes color bursts and blooms. In a play about not hearing because of not listening or not having the physical ability, David Hobbs as sound director uses music between and within scenes to remind us all how relaxing, soothing, and uplifting beautiful scores are and how empty our lives would be in a world where they could not be heard. Anna Chase has dressed each to match appropriate personalities and temperaments, and director Troy Johnson has figured out how to orchestrate a hearing and non-hearing cast into a symphony of ever-engrossing encounters.

What is both a heart-warming and heart-breaking final encounter between the two brothers is suddenly and somehow engulfed in a much too happy ending (given everything we know about this family up to this point) with no explanation in script or story how we get there. Maybe there is too much credence put on an earlier Billy observation: "It is amazing what you can get way with if you smile enough."

Pear Theatre's Tribes is two-plus hours of uniquely moving and enlightening theatre, leaving us each to consider our own tribes, what boundaries we place around them, and how we treat our own members and non-members.

Pear Theatre continues its production of Tribes through November 22, 2015, at 1110 Avenida Avenue, Mountain View. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-254-1148.

Be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Jose/Silicon Valley area

- Eddie Reynolds

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