'Tribes' explores how language affect life and family when someone is born deaf
I wasn’t prepared for the full range of emotions I would experience when I saw the performance of “Tribes” on opening night at the Hilton Head Preparatory School Main Street Theater. The show is at once eye-opening, soul-shaking, joyful, searing, filled with ferocious intensity and, through it all, loaded with star-quality performances.
Though I’d seen segments of the work, read the script and even had the opportunity to talk with some of the cast members, the beauty of their acting was jaw dropping. “Tribes” is, by turns, very funny, very sad, very happy, elegantly nuanced and filled with courage and relevance.
Written by the British writer Nina Raine and first performed in 2010 in London, “Tribes” has been seen and appreciated by so many theater goers across the country. We know Raine for her approach to thought-provoking issues.
Sometimes a writer chooses to create a work not simply to entertain, but to offer a storyline designed to inform, to instruct or to offer an opinion. The writer’s goal is to make a difference, to offer a point of view and, especially, to communicate some form of moral purpose which will connect with an audience.
The messages Raine cares about so deeply clearly mattered to director Blake White. And, based on the responses of the first-nighters, the audience appreciated the production and the performances and heard what Raine had to say about communication, respect, relationships and love.
Raine’s script offers a close up look at a place in time when an adult family — dysfunctional, critical, insular, academic snobs, Brits and Jewish — who live together find that they are faced with making some life-affecting changes. They will need to gaze clear-eyed at a new reality and decide on taking some next steps. They may move or modify their positions within the “Tribe.” Think of this series of random circumstances as a kind of backdrop for the very personal story which unfolds with such immediacy.
Billy (Joseph Ausanio), played masterfully, is the youngest of three children. He is deaf, he lip-reads, and is returning home from college, where he is looking toward his future. Joining him is Sylvia (Prentiss Standridge), whom he plans to introduce to his family. Standridge is so convincing as the hearing daughter of a deaf couple. But she is losing her hearing and is faced with accommodating this life-changing event in her life as she considers her future.
Billy’s intellectual, irrepressible family — narcissists everyone — is self-absorbed, self-centered and self-regarding, at the very least. There’s Christopher (Jerry Durkin) — commanding in the role of the scholarly, cerebral dad who is clearly at the center of the dysfunction — and Ruth (Meagan Bowers), who as the mother sees her children as an extension of her own ego, brilliantly assumes and communicates her role as the family diplomat. She is the kimono-wearing mother trying to overcome her block and complete her detective novel.
They hurl ideas, insults and criticism at the drop of a suggestion or a possibility. The target of the most recent criticism has been Daniel (Ian McCabe), who offers a knock-out physical performance as the older brother who suffers from depression and “auditory hallucinations.” He is trying to overcome a serious stammer that has recently returned.
His sister, Beth (Sarah Newhouse), delivers some of the most laughter-producing lines as she considers her failure at taking her operatic voice to the public. She is overwhelmed by her recent failure as a singer and as a potential bride.
When the family reassembles to try to work through this period of adjustment, much is said and much more is needed to be said
Some of the very best moments occur when the family and Sylvia are clustered around the dining room table. They discuss any number of unrelated topics, from learning Chinese to pepper on figs, or how deaf people offer poetry or respond to music in a kind of “no holds barred” interchange. Their issues seem to be posed according to their needs, and we, in the audience, become involved in every word of the tightest dialogue. We do not want to miss a word, an errant gesture or a subtle nuance.
“Tribes,” and the possibilities it offers and the point of view it communicates, do matter. They clearly mattered to Raine.
And they will matter to you.
Artist, musician, teacher and writer Nancy K. Wellard focuses on portraying and promoting the cultural arts, first in Los Angeles and, for close to 30 years, in the Lowcountry. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
▪ What: “Tribes” by Lean Ensemble Theater
▪ Where: Hilton Head Preparatory School Main Street Theatre
▪ When: Performances at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27-28 and Feb. 2-4, and matinees at 2 p.m. Jan. 29 and Feb. 5
▪ Tickets: Evening performances $40, matinees $35, students/active military $15
▪ For info: 843-715-6676 or www.leanensemble.org