Saturday, January 11, 2014

Phoenix Theatre production of "Tribes" takes on the sorrows of trying to understand

People in families that talk a lot but don't really listen to each other are a staple of drama. There must be something basically dramatic in the premise that intimacy doesn't necessarily breed understanding.

How much more extreme such a situation is in the English family that Nina Raine scrutinizes in "Tribes," in which a scrappy, proudly artsy/intellectual "tribe" includes a deaf young man brought up to lip-read his connection to the hearing world. His escape from the family's practice of tearing each other down is a mixed blessing, tipping over thunderously into his marginalization.

The play opened this weekend on the Phoenix Theatre's Basile Stage in a production that forces upon the audience renewed attention to how we communicate and how intensely loyal we can become to our particular communicative style, especially when that style congeals into tribal thinking.

The profane, polemical Christopher, a retired professor now focusing on his love of intellectual combat through argumentative writing, sets the tone for this family. The opening scene of "Tribes," as seen Friday night, presented a shell game in which one struggled to find the pea of sympathy: Christopher is repulsive, his wife Beth is basically too cowed and ditsy to be an effective counterweight to the bully she married, and siblings Daniel and Ruth are at each other rudely all the time. Only Billy, deaf from birth, enlists our sympathy right off the bat. Andrew Martin's sensitive and ultimately strong portrayal guarantees that.

Sylvia (right) meets Billy's family in "Tribes."
Directed by Rich Rand, the show faces the problem of moving hearing audiences beyond pity.  The playwright assists that process by creating one outsider character with a foot in both worlds: Sylvia, born hearing but going deaf as a genetic consequence of her parents' deafness. As Billy's romance with Sylvia (played passionately and with articulate pain by Ryan O'Shea) quickly blossoms, he finds a way forward into a self-confidence his family never permitted. Crucially, their most stubborn error was refusing to learn sign language or to encourage Billy to learn it. Though Billy expresses his love-fueled burst of deaf pride riskily, the path toward a healthy power shift in the troubled family can be glimpsed at the end.

"Abusive love is all that's on the table here," Stephen Hunt (as Christopher) roundly declares in the first act. Fortunately, it is at least some sort of love to build on, and Hunt gave a witty portrayal of a narrow-minded man convinced that all his biases and predilections are fully justified. It's a toxic love, though, insofar as his children have absorbed the expectation that they must achieve somehow, but without getting the emotional resources to do so.

That has particularly warped Daniel, as Matthew Goodrich's illuminating performance showed. It moved from caustic cynicism to exposure of inner conflicts as the symptoms of Daniel's deep-seated mental illness resurface. The last scene offered searing proof in this performance that he, improbably, is the best-prepared in this household to make a breakthrough to Billy.

Kathryn Bartholomew displayed the fierce pathos of Ruth's operatic ambitions without making them ridiculous in the way Daniel insists they are. Everyone here is desperate for validation: Gigi  Jennewein cunningly convinces us of Beth's goodwill as she struggles with a habit of conflict avoidance but is unable to come up with a strategy to bring it off.

The technical side of the show (credit to Jeff Martin and Tom Horan) is superbly handled, conveying some of the persistent annoyance of deafness — it is not a silent world — and on screens translating signed dialogue into the written word.

As members of the hearing "tribe," we are constantly called to account by "Tribes" for our use of the well-worn verbal chips we slide into the conversational pot:  Sylvia admits to Billy that as she becomes less and less sure of what people are saying to her,  she falls back on "Really?" to hide her disability. And Billy, telling Daniel of his new romance, catches on to his brother's repetition of a perfunctory "Right" as thinly veiled disapproval.

Cultural engagement with the uneasy relationship of the deaf and the hearing has thrown up some memorable probes of how prejudice takes root and, even with more generous inclinations, produces agonizing separation and cruelty. On the big screen, examples include the fraught love affair of "Children of a Lesser God" and the horrific sexist prank of "In the Company of Men."

In the latter film's final scene, Mark Recker's character, regretting his role in the abuse of a deaf co-worker, shouts in vain at her: "Listen to me! Listen to me!" As powerful as that is, Nina Raine's play and the Phoenix's production of it assert this imperative more profitably with bilingual rigor, undergirded by the universal need for personal growth and reciprocal love.