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British playwright Nina Raine explores the language of family. logo
James Caverly and Helen Cespedes star in Nina Raine's Tribes, directed by David Muse, at Washington, D.C.'s Studio Theatre.
(© Teddy Wolff)

There's a moment in Nina Raine's stirring Tribes, playing at the Studio Theatre, when Christopher (Michael Tolaydo in a crank-tastic role), a retired academic and patriarch of the English family the play follows, announces that a conversation at the dinner table will be "real and un-politically correct."

It's that exact bluntness that makes the script of Tribes so moving. Raine manages to say a great deal through the use of arguments, sign language, music, and even silence. Tribes touches on the meaning of life, the difference between deaf with a capital "D" and without (even the exploring of the unwritten social class of deafness), and the importance of family and being heard.

Set mostly in the tension-filled kitchen of the creative, raucous clan at the center of the story, Tribes quickly establishes that the family in question — father, mother, three grown children all living at home — are argumentative and intelligent but most of all loving.

Deaf actor James Caverly plays Billy, the deaf son who seems to sit idly by as his father laments about his other children and any matter that happens to pick his fancy for the evening. Billy is a lip-reader and although he tries to stay in the family conversations, he often finds that he is a step behind and not really fully involved. It's a life he's learned to live with and one with which he seems content.

Things change when he meets the endearing Sylvia (a delightful Helen Cespedes) who lights up the stage in all of her scenes. Billy quickly learns that Sylvia is the daughter of deaf parents and she herself is going deaf. She doesn't have the same lip-reading acumen as Billy, but she is an expert signer, and surprised that he is lost by even the simplest phrases. Sylvia begins to teach Billy sign language and the two quickly fall in love.

But when Sylvia meets Billy's family for the first time, they make it clear to him that they aren't too happy with the fact that Sylvia's teaching him sign language, especially since they worked so hard to teach him to communicate without it. Eventually, Billy demands to be heard and Caverly has us on the edge of our seats hoping that his family is finally listening. It's in these moments that Raine tackles everything from shame and desperation to love, and asks the question: What does it mean to be deaf?

Studio Theatre Artistic Director David Muse has assembled a wonderful cast led by Caverly and Cespedes, whose chemistry with everyone in the production has you longing for her when she's not around. Nancy Robinette as Billy's mom plays the devoted wife without seeming like a victim to her overbearing husband. She gets some good laughs in arguing against Tolaydo and his sometimes blowhard character. Annie Funke plays Billy's opera-singing sister Ruth, who longs for attention, while Richard Gallagher plays his older brother Daniel, and the back-and-forth between the siblings is pitch-perfect.

It's the character of Daniel that unfortunately takes the play away from what is, at times, important. He has broken up with his girlfriend and is smoking pot too much, according to his dad. By Act II he has developed a sort of stuttering problem. Gallagher handles with aplomb the part of the young man who seems to be falling apart, but there's an odd substory involving Daniel that doesn't seem to stick to the primary message of the play: being heard.

The one-room set is complemented with screens that translate sign language, show internal thoughts, and dissect conversations, while various degrees of music (including The Jungle Book's "I'm the King of the Jungle") play to transition from one scene to the next.

Tribes proves that deaf or not, everyone wants to be heard even though we spend much of our lives trying to tune people out. As Sylvia says in one touching scene, "I never knew going deaf would be this noisy."


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