Lovers and losers; speaking and signing; silence and sound; but, above all, family. It’s all interwoven in the intricate pattern of Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” one of the best shows to come down the pike in a long, long time. As directed at Berkeley Rep by Jonathan Moscone, it has the potential to make you laugh and cry and look and listen in surprising new ways.
A fine ensemble cast tells the story of Billy (James Caverly of the National Theatre of the Deaf, who has taken the role in Boston and Washington, D.C.), born deaf into a hearing, shouting, totally screwed-up family of British creative intellectuals. This is his “tribe,” but he is a near-silent participant in their rituals of sarcasm, one-upmanship and competition. His mother, Beth (a sympathetic Anita Carey), and his pretentious, blunt-spoken, bull-headed father (the masterful Paul Whitworth) are still madly in love — perhaps to the detriment of their child-rearing. Billy’s sister, Ruth (Elizabeth Morton), a wannabe opera singer, is something of a failure in both her love life and career. Daniel, the oldest brother (Dan Clegg, who nearly steals the show), is a pothead slacker who hears voices in his head attesting to his worthlessness. They are driving him mad.
Enter Sylvia (a lovely Nell Geisslinger), a hearing, signing child of deaf parents who finds herself rapidly losing her hearing as well. She and Billy fall in love, she teaches him to sign (his parents never did because they wanted him to be “normal”) and initiates him into her “tribe,” the deaf community, which has its own hierarchies of disability and adaptation. But her introduction into his family has problematic results. After initially baiting and harassing their son’s new (and first) girlfriend, the parents grow to love her, but the siblings resent her influence on their brother. When Billy comes home and announces that he will only sign from now on and will not speak to them until and unless they also learn sign language, the loquacious, argumentative family is shocked into (near) silence.
Everything falls apart in Act II. Brother Billy turns out to be less than perfect, brother Daniel is more than we thought, Sylvia leaves for reasons of her own and sister Ruth keeps on feeling sorry for herself. The parents, still reeling from their over-protected youngest child’s desertion, mitigate their behavior — but, old habits dying hard, only slightly, we suspect. Things go on from there but I don’t want to give away too much.
It takes place on a set by Todd Rosenthal that’s as messy as these people’s lives, with costumes by Meg Neville, lighting by Christopher Akerlind and sound by Jake Rodriguez that gives you a hint of how the world might resonate upon deaf ears. Joan Osato’s video design of, as Hamlet notably said, “words, words, words,” is stunning.
Words are what it’s about for this verbal, highly literate bunch (Dad’s a published author, Mom’s writing a crime novel, Daniel is working intermittently on a thesis and Billy is doing some highly creative writing of his own). But words can be weapons, keeping communication at bay. Promises are made in words, but promises can be broken. Words are what we hear all the time but, if you can’t hear, what are they really? Words can tell you what is true. Or not. Nina Raine has used them masterfully in “Tribes.”