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David Cromer directs a beautifully acted production of Nina Raine's affecting play about the challenges of communication.

Susan Pourfar and Russell Harvard
in Tribes
(© Gregory Costanzo)
The challenges of communication come through loud and clear in British dramatist Nina Raine's affecting if slghtly overstuffed play Tribes, now receieving a beautifully acted production under the sure-handed direction of David Cromer at the Barrow Street Theatre.

As the play begins -- staged in the round amidst Scott Pask's gorgeously detailed living room set -- a seemingly typical family evening is in progress, full of shouting, quasi-intellectual arguments, and dramatic outbursts by parents Christopher (Jeff Perry) and Beth (Mare Winningham), both writers, and their three adult chldren, now all living at home: graduate student Daniel (Will Brill), aspiring opera singer Ruth (Gayle Rankin), and Billy (Russell Harvard).

Actually, Billy is the quiet one -- as we learn, it's partially learned behavior, and partially the fact that he's been deaf from birth. He's grown up able to hear (with the assistance of hearing aids), speak, and read lips, but as Raine eventually makes clear, Billy has never been on completely equal footing with the rest of the clan.

Billy's world changes, first slowly then dramatically, when he meets the fetching Sylvia (Susan Pourfar) at a party. She speaks perfectly, but her once-perfect hearing is starting to rapidly deteroriate. (Her parents are deaf, and she will become so). Unlike Billy, though, she's masterful at sign language, and after she begins to teach him how to sign -- and the two become romantically involved -- he eventually takes his new avocation to an extreme, refusing to communicate with his family until they learn to sign as well.

That development, which ultimately seems both inevitable yet unexpected, could really have given Tribes all the drama it needs, as Billy exerts his new sense of independence. But Raine ups the ante too much in the shoritsh second act, as Daniel's mental illness (he's probably schizophrenic) comes back with a vengeance, and Billy jeopardizes his first-ever-job, using his lip-reading skills to "translate" court tapes without audio.

Yet, even when the play threatens to drift into melodrama, Cromer consistently guides his cast into truthfulness and clarity. The handsome, sensitive Harvard transforms almost effortlessly from sweetness to bitterness, all the while making us aware of both Billy's inner pain and strength. He's well matched -- and sometimes topped -- by the superb Pourfar, whose struggle to maintain her emotional balance is simply heartbreaking, and whose occasional outbursts are expertly calibrated.

Brlll does extremely well in painting a complex portrait of Daniel, whose seemingly callous behavior is often inexplicable -- both before and after we're aware of his illness -- and Rankin captures the depths of the somewhat whiny Ruth, whose talents (never heard) are clearly not appreciated by her father, and whose low self-esteem is perhaps her biggest liability.

Perry never shies away from Christopher's almost shockingly boorish behavior, yet we're always aware he's more clueless than malicious, while the always fine Winningham makes the most of Beth, even if Raine gives her the least to work with.

Cromer also cleverly, if sparingly, uses Jeff Sugg's projections and Daniel Kluger's sound design to reinforce Raine's points about what we hear, how he hear, what we choose to hear, and ultimately what we understand -- about our families and ourselves.