Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Feb. 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Nina Raine’s “Tribes” is a very irritating dysfunctional family drama. But in a good way. Mostly.
The provocative play is about extremely intelligent British intellectuals who are obsessed with language yet fail to communicate. At the same time, it also tackles attitudes towards a related disability: deafness and how that condition affects the central character’s sense of identity.
Directed at Steppenwolf Theatre by Austin Pendleton (David Cromer directed a New York production), the show benefits from an engrossing first act but lapses into improbability in the second and ends not only inconclusively, but oddly.
We get a good sense of family dynamics as Christopher, Beth and their live-at-home adult children gather for a meal in the kitchen of Walt Spangler’s expansive, cluttered set that looks decidedly lived in with lots of books, knickknacks and other stuff. They argue ferociously, shouting to be heard over the din, putting down opposing opinions, abusing each other verbally with little regard for the consequences.
Christopher (Francis Guinan), an academic who periodically retreats to his laptop to study Chinese, adamantly asserts that it’s impossible to have feelings unless they’re first put into words. He’s especially disparaging about his wife Beth’s (Molly Regan) efforts to write detective novels, though he casts his net far and wide with insults for individuals and groups, or “tribes,” including his own, the Jews. He also spends a lot of time yelling at his older son, Daniel (Steve Haggard), who is trying to write a thesis on language, has overcome a serious stammer, hears voices in his head (of his father, not surprisingly) and needs medication to function. Daughter Ruth (Helen Sadler) is an aspiring opera singer with low self-esteem, and the sound level on the radio is repeatedly turned up, drowning out conversation.
The only one who seems to be listening is the younger son, Billy (John McGinty), who has recently returned home and has been deaf from birth (as has the actor). Raised by his parents to read lips and speak rather than learn sign language, he has to struggle to understand what’s going on around him. While Christopher claims the goal was for Billy to be like everyone else so he could function in the real world, the others treat him more gently in subtle ways, and we later learn that he’s never had a job.
Billy’s world begins to change when Sylvia (Alana Arenas) becomes his girlfriend. The daughter of deaf parents who is losing her hearing, like her older sister before her, she teaches him sign language and introduces him to the deaf community (another “tribe”). She’s disillusioned by its smallness and insularity, but Billy is captivated by a new sense of belonging. With Sylvia’s encouragement, he also gets a job reading lips to interpret evidence for legal cases.
The debate about the best way to deal with deafness really gets underway when Billy brings Sylvia home to meet his parents and Christopher cross-examines her harshly, even sarcastically, as Beth tries to soften the blows. But Sylvia, in Arenas’ strong performance, can hold her own, and her description of the hierarchy in the deaf community is funny as well as pointed. As it becomes harder for her to comprehend what people are saying, she also has no illusions about deafness.
Being deaf from birth and forced to play by his parents’ rules, Billy is in a very different place emotionally. Confused and hurt, he increasingly identifies with others like himself, and his resentment of his family — mainly for never really listening to him — escalates into such a rage that he refuses to talk to them until they learn to sign. His absence is especially devastating for Daniel, whose stammer and other problems return with a vengeance.
It’s here, in the middle of the second act, that “Tribes” goes astray. Up until this point, Pendleton and his actors have done such a fine job of conveying the love for Billy that motivated the family, however misguided their approach, that the vehemence of his anger seems wrong, even if it’s meant to show that his previous quiet had been misinterpreted as affection. Worse yet, Billy does something that screws up his career as an interpreter and comes across as both morally reprehensible and out of character.
Except for Sylvia’s observations, I started thinking that Raine was setting up “either-or” situations that could have been “and,” like the television auto ads that hypothesize “nuts or bolts” on a swimming pool and “sweet or sour chicken” and conclude that “and” is better. Christopher’s flimsy excuse notwithstanding, there’s no reason Billy couldn’t have learned both to read lips and to sign, nor is it plausible in this day and age that parents who wanted him to get on in the world would never have thought of job possibilities. By the same token, he could have offered to teach them sign language rather than giving them an ultimatum to learn it.
On top of issues with the script, which just peters out, Steppenwolf’s production adds a dimension that’s not in the original. The actress playing Sylvia is Black, yet for all of Christopher’s derogatory comments about various ethnic groups, neither he nor anyone else makes any mention of race at all. I’m all for colorblind casting, and Arenas is excellent, but the incongruity is a little distracting.
Just one more quibble with a show that’s generally worth seeing: The projected subtitles are used in creative ways (like to translate body language) but there could be more of them. McGinty occasionally is hard to understand, and they also would be helpful when everyone is talking at once.