Friday, March 15, 2013

Familial Communication At Heart Of 'Tribes'

A family is a complicated entity. And, sometimes, things said and not said can make or break the unit. Sometimes a family’s dynamics just aren’t pretty. 

Every family has issues.  Relationships blossom and relationships falter. Communication can sometimes be a real problem.

Familial communication is at the heart of Nina Raine’s comedy/drama, Tribes, currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum.

This particular family is progressive. Billy, who is the central character in this production, is the youngest in a family of five. He is also deaf, although he’s been raised as if he can hear. The matriarch and patriarch of the family, Beth and Christopher, encourage self-expression. The conversation at the dinner table is one for the books. There is lots of yelling and lots of four letter words flying.  For someone on the outside looking in it would look like a family at war. But if you read between the lines and you believe what Christopher says, ‘it’s because we love each other.’ 

There are three children, Ruth, a woman who is lonely and questioning why she doesn’t have a love life. Then there is Daniel, who is a pothead and stutters and has some other psychiatric problems, including hearing voices in his head. He also has an unhealthy fear of his brother, Billy, abandoning him.  Both Daniel and Ruth have recently returned home. Daniel is writing a thesis on language, while Ruth is trying her hand at being an opera singer, much to the chagrin of Daniel.

Billy, who doesn’t know sign language, but lip-reads very well, watches helplessly as his family, who also don’t know sign language, communicate rather freely with each other. He’s left feeling estranged.  His parents thought it best not to have Billy feel handicapped or that he has a disability by learning sign language. Their thought was to have him feel as ‘normal’ as possible by lip-reading.

Then, one day, Billy, deaf since birth, meets Sylvia, at a club. Sylvia is a young woman who is an expert at sign language and is, unfortunately, losing her hearing due to an inherited condition. Both of her parents are deaf.   She teaches Billy how to sign – introducing him to the deaf community. The ability to sign opens up a whole new world for him.

Things come to a head when Billy announces to his family, through Sylvia, that he will no longer have anything to do with his family until they all learn to speak to him through sign language. His family, of course, hits the roof.  The reality is that Billy has grown tired of being compliant in the way his family would have him communicate. 

It’s fascinating to watch this family situation play out.

Director David Cromer has amassed an incredibly talented ensemble that oozes family.  The cast features original New York cast members Will Brill, Russell Harvard, Susan Pourfar and Gayle Rankin, as well as Lee Roy Rogers and Jeff Still who took over roles in the long-running production.

There is no one stand out in this production, as all of the actors bring their individual A-games.  Still and Harvard have the most difficult characters to make believable and both do it with enormous flair and conviction.

Raine’s words and Director David Cromer’s direction = a smart and emotive piece. At times it’s exhausting and even hard to watch as Billy tries in desperation to get his family to understand the loneliness, isolation and angst he feels as an outsider in his own family.

Kudos to everyone involved in this production. Scott Pask’s set is effective and Jeff Sugg’s supertitles and projections used in the production to create a sense of what it’s like to communicate as a deaf person are fantastic. Daniel Kluger’s sound design, Tristan Raines’ contemporary costumes, and Keith Parham’s lighting also help to bring this production to its fullness.

On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (Oh, no), N (Needs work), L (likeable) O (OK) and E (excellent), Tribes gets an E (excellent).

Tribes, Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA  90012; Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun. 1 and 6:30 p.m., no performances on Mondays; through April 14, 2013; Tickets $20-$70; 213 628 2772 or www.

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