On Stage: A Voice in the Dark

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Studio’s ‘Tribes’ tackles the world of the hearing-impaired and asks us to listen.

James Caverly (Billy) and Richard Gallagher (Daniel) in "Tribes." (Photo byTeddy Wolff)

James Caverly (Billy) and Richard Gallagher (Daniel) in “Tribes.” (Photo by Teddy Wolff)

It may be too early to predict a best play nomination for 2014, but if Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” now in performance at Studio Theatre, isn’t on that list next January, it will be a gross injustice.

Under David Muse’s deft direction, Studio has delivered an effective production that merges a thoughtful, brilliant play with a uniquely competent cast. Muse has sensitively staged “Tribes,” about an average family with a hearing-impaired son, for both a hearing and a non-hearing audience. Three sign interpreters (provided by First Chair Interpreted Productions) sit in the back of the theater with their backs to the stage where they use sign language for hearing-impaired audience members facing them.

In “Tribes,” a voluble, academic family has prohibited their son, Billy, from learning sign language for fear that it would isolate him within the hearing-impaired “tribe” community. He has learned to read lips, but everything changes when he meets, Sylvia, a woman who was born to hearing-impaired parents and is losing her hearing. She knows how to sign, and as they fall in love, teaches Billy how to sign.

Sylvia (Helen Cespedes) masters the complicated pivotal role that is vital to understanding the challenges she creates for Billy (James Caverly) and for his insensitive family. Caverly, a graduate of Gallaudet University, who reads lips and talks with the hollow voice of a person who cannot hear himself speak, graphically reflects the loneliness and frustration of a man living in a garrulous family where he is often left out of conversations. (Caverly also grew up with hearing parents and two hearing siblings. He has a deaf sister and both grew up speaking and signing.)

Michael Tolaydo, the patriarch of the family, is painfully effective as an arrogant academic who loves his son, but is convinced he knows what’s best for him, even if it locks Billy out of the deaf community. The always watchable Nancy Robinette as Beth, Billy’s novelist mother, is torn by family loyalties and dealing with what she also perceives is best for Billy. The family is rounded out by another son Daniel (Richard Gallagher), an unhappy young man who hears voices in his head, and Ruth (Annie Funke), who has misplaced aspirations to sing opera. For all the cacophony of family conversations, they may not be deaf, but they aren’t listening to each other. There are many ways to be hearing impaired.

Through the genius of Raine’s play, part of Studio’s British Invasion festival of plays by British writers under 40, and the sensitivity of Muse’s direction, you don’t hate the family. You understand how important it is to be part of something, and the family is the most basic tribal group for all of us. But as with every tribe, in addition to offering security, it also establishes rules and regulations that are sometimes a burden to follow. Sylvia, the outsider who lives in a different hearing-deprived community, forces Billy’s family to face the challenge of a son who has fallen in love with a woman they believe lives in the isolation of the hearing impaired.

Billy’s act of courage is to face his family with the ultimatum that they must listen to him. He will continue to be part of his family, but will also be part of the hearing-impaired community. Sylvia, however, begins to speak in an increasingly hollow voice as her hearing loss becomes more acute and faces her own dilemma of becoming deaf. It will be a difficult transition that will take time to work out.

Too often it is easy to forget a play as soon as you leave the theater. “Tribes,” however, in tribute to the author and Studio’s provocative staging, strikes deeply into defining who we are and where and how we see ourselves. It lingers in our consciousness and forces questions we may not want to ask.

Tribes” continues through March 2, 2014 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets $39-$75, available at 202-332-3300 and online here.

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