THEATRE REVIEW: At Barrington Stage ‘Tribes’ invites personal revelations
By Nina Raine
Directed by Jenn Thompson
“Are you asking me whether. . .deaf people are emotionally deaf as well — lack empathy?”
It is rare for me to get overly personal when reviewing a play. In the case of Nina Raine’s drama “Tribes,” it is impossible for me to divorce myself from this nearly primeval dysfunctional family. I sat at Barrington Stage Company’s current production unreasonably transfixed as a weird version of my own life played out before me. It has, perhaps, clouded my judgment somewhat, so I begin by telling you that this is one great play about people I hope you never meet outside the theatre. I am fully committed to this play’s continued life and success for it tells a story that everyone should know. It is not my story. Mine bears uncanny similarities, but this is not my life on the stage. I just felt like it was.
It is the story of a boy raised as normal in a very abnormal family when he is really the one who is abnormal. His out-of-the-usual life is ignored for a semblance of sameness and this critical act by his parents ultimately creates a cavernous hole in the middle of the organization known as family. Billy was born deaf and raised as hearing with artificial aids, a mother who has spent countless hours teaching him to lip-read and to speak, and a father who has ignored the difference between Billy and his siblings. The attempt to keep him “normal” has worked, has given him confidence and strength. It isn’t until he meets a girl he finds attractive that he begins to understand how much he has missed, has been prevented from knowing and understanding. He isn’t stupid. He is merely trusting. That is a trait that has sustained him into his 20s.
[In my case I was diagnosed before age 1 as epileptic, put on drugs that I lived on for 40 years, raised as normal and never told the truth about my condition. I was trained as a dancer and worked from an early age, kept from my peers and surrounded with loving lies perpetrated by my entire family. Perhaps you can begin to see my odd identification with this play.]
Billy’s father regards his family as creative intellectuals. His two other children have survived failed relationships and have no careers; in fact, they’ve returned to the nest. C. David Johnson plays Christopher, the father, in a gruff and overbearing manner with a harsh tone always floating his words through a sea of malice. This is his way of expressing love and even his wife suffers from his hostility. [My father was kinder, gentler, but forced me to recite times tables at dinner knowing full well that mathematics confused and pained me, embarrassed me, and left me close to tears]. Christopher is brilliantly played by Johnson who allows us sneak peeks into his actual heart every now and then. His worst trait, really, is his refusal to acknowledge that Billy is who and what he is and that, one day, he will need to become the man who was never the boy he should have been. He is a man who prefers to study Chinese, which he will never use, rather than learn sign language, which would bring him closer to his deaf son. Johnson gives this man a strangely pathetic life on the stage. We ache for him to see the light and we know that prayers will never work here.
Billy’s brother Daniel is a paranoid schizophrenic, dangerous and volatile. He has abused himself emotionally and physically and cannot relate to reality without shouting and without the background music from the radio that helps to block out the voices that torment him. The one thing, the one person, he truly loves is his brother. Miles G. Jackson brings so much intensity and pain to this role that he seems, through the course of the evening, to actually melt away before our eyes, to dwindle into a person disappearing from view. It is a performance to remember, for it is so amazingly wrought that it feels like eavesdropping every time he has a scene to play.
Billy’s sister Ruth, a singer with boyfriend troubles, is played delicately by Justine Salata. She is both attractive and sweet, although her character cherishes her own personal life-disasters as though they are accomplishments. [My brother, as a teen, was a monster, always torturing me and others, known to bite people, and who could turn on the charm and be so disarming that family members always seemed to prefer him to any of the rest of us].
Billy himself is a delightful boy, eager to partake in family matters even when he cannot completely contribute, as he cannot completely hear or understand what is happening around him. Joshua Castille, who is actually deaf, plays the role with a deeply ingrained sweetness that is openly obvious even when he rebels, standing up for himself and his needs against this hovering family. Castille is magnetic. Even from the rear of the orchestra, his pull on outside defenses and support is overwhelming. His portrayal of this character is superb and his transitions are demanding. We watch him and internalize his struggles — at least, I did, for I recognized them.
With the confidence of his new knowledge of signing and his discovery of the world his family has denied him and protected him from, he throws away, harshly, all that he has known before. [I did the same thing twice with my family, once at 26 and again at 41. I know what Billy knows, feel what he feels]. Castille tears out our hearts while allowing his anger to overwhelm the situation. This is a fine job of acting — truly fine.
Beth, wife and mother of this clan, is played with devastating seriousness by Deirdre Madigan. She brings us a woman who cherishes her children almost to the point of smothering them. She is a wife whose husband appalls her but also appeals to her, he a man whose needs become wishes to be satisfied by her. Her belief that their decisions about Billy’s place in the family and his rearing by them is right cannot be altered by reality and discovery. Madigan makes all of her statements simply and honestly. She lets Beth be the person who carries the heaviest burdens while also being the one who attempts to lighten and brighten the world around her, taking on everyone else’s troubles without a shrug. Madigan gives us Beth’s beauty but she stands firm on Beth’s decisions. [Much like my own mother with our family, Beth has no remorse for her selfish decisions that she never sees in that light. My mother’s excuse for denying me the knowledge of my “differences” was that she didn’t want me to feel different; of course, I always felt that way, not knowing why I was different until I was well into my adulthood]. Madigan is definitely wonderful in this role, making Beth as real as real could be.
On the wonderfully realistic set designed by John McDermott, wearing Tracy Christensen’s incredible costumes, Madigan and the clan live their odd and futile lives in an unreal world the super-adults have created. They bicker and banter and joke and scream and shout and their normality is enhanced by their tight environment, set in the North of London where most middle-class Jewish families live [mine do, and even in homes like this one]. Lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg captures the places and the times of day with perfection and he helps to focus the action in an idealized way.
When Sylvia, a hearing girl born to deaf parents, enters the picture, things begin to change for Billy. This adventurous and plucky girl is losing her hearing so she comes to things with a very different focus. She has been taught to sign at an early age and she brings this new language into Billy’s life, able to do so because he is very attracted to her. It is her influence on him that alters his course. It is her acceptance of him and even, to some degree, of his family, that makes the play’s engine go. Eli Pauley plays Sylvia with an energy that fights the anger in Billy’s family and helps to keep her character strong and centered. She does not have the most touching scene, but she has the ones that impart emotional resonance to others. She and Castille play well together and she uses an aggressiveness to overcome some of the play’s most difficult situations. I really liked her work in this play.
So much credit for the success of this company goes to the director, Jenn Thompson. A winner on the comedy stages, she moves here into a strong and dramatic piece with drops of awkward humor that help to humanize some of the most difficult characters. Thompson not only moves her cast into and out of moments of tenderness, she also manipulates them through harsh words, family arguments and the breakaway moments when Billy asserts his independence with a truthfulness that actually hurts. Her work on this show tops anything I’ve seen from her to date and she will have to work really hard to give us a better show than this one.
I apologize for so much self-display in this review. This is not my play. It is a play that calls up a lot of issues for me and, I suspect, for many other people who will and should see it. It is an award-winning play and deservedly so. It is also a play that will move you if you give it a chance and, if it does and you happen to meet me somewhere afterward, don’t be afraid to say something nice to me. I always appreciate it.
Tribes plays at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, Mass., through Saturday, Sept. 3. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 236-8888, or go online to www.barringtonstageco.org.