Families and Cultures Clash in Tribes

Families and cultures: sometimes they connect and sometimes they don’t. Tribes, now on stage at Road Less Traveled Theatre, makes that point very clear.

Playwright Nina Raine crafted an interesting take on a family story. Parents and two of the three adult children are so wrapped up in their own orbits that they chose not to meet youngest son Billy in his unique culture. Billy was born deaf and his family’s choice was to fit him with hearing aids, teach him to read lips, and expect him to fit in. But those who live with a hearing impairment have their own culture, their own way of expressing themselves, that is different from hearing culture. This family, instead of embracing it, shut it down and the consequence is that Billy’s life has its arc. In this family unit, he is often the observer to their twisted family dynamic.

It took me a while and some reflecting to embrace this production for the fine work that it is. At face value, it’s a study in narcissism for the parents and a “finding their way” study for the older siblings. Act one is full of shouting. But it’s also clear that no one – except Billy – is actively listening to the words and the spaces between. Through the high decibel dialogue we meet oldest son Daniel (Johnny Barden) who is writing his thesis on how language is used, while getting over a break up, smoking pot, and dealing increasing levels of mental illness. Younger sister Ruth (Anna Krempholtz) is an aspiring singer who is struggling to launch her career in opera. Mother Beth (Margaret Massman) is trying to write a novel and patriarch Christopher (David Marciniak) is an academic learning Chinese…often wearing a headset when he’s not yelling and swearing. Billy (Dave Wantuck) has just moved home from university. He begins attending Deaf social event where he meets Sylvia (Melinda Capeles) and is drawn to her lively personality and connection to the Deaf community. She was raised by Deaf parents and is fluent in sign language.  It’s her story that adds more depth to the script: she is losing her hearing – as did her sister, a genetic malady – and through her we learn the difference between being deaf and learning how to be Deaf.

Capeles is remarkable in her role. The vibrance of her Artie Award-winning role in La Lupe: My Life, My Destiny from 2019 is tempered with a different kind of passion here. She’s caring, intense, and frightened by the changes in her life. She’s a good foil for Wantuck (who is new to the professional stage and quite remarkable here): where his character is ill at ease, she’s comfortable and accepting. One of the finest scenes is in act two when – for a brief few minutes – we share Billy’s point of view, thanks to a shift in sound design and lighting , expertly crafted by sound designer Katie Menke and lighting designer John Rickus.

Director Doug Zschiegner wove in exquisite layers of nuance with the dialogue and how it’s delivered. Many moments in act two are signed: subtitles on projection screens share the dialogue. The contrast between acts one and two is well handled and effective.

While it’s a struggle to fine anything likeable in the parents and sister Ruth, the interplay between Daniel and Billy and their complicated relationship is compelling. The brother who is studying language and the brother caught between two distinct communications modalities create the heart of Raine’s script. Daniel’s struggle with mental illness and the return of his childhood stutter are powerful backstories that further emphasize this family’s dysfunction.

A strong, solid cast, an introspection on how we communicate, and love story that struggles to hold on to love….Tribes is complex and well crafted by this expert cast and crew.

Tribes runs a little more than two hours with a 10 minute intermission and is onstage to March 27. Find tickets and details at http://www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.