A musical metaphor may not be optimal for a play about deafness, but Nina Raine’s Tribes strikes some remarkably deep and resonant chords. Following successful runs in London and New York, this rich, thoughtful, and compelling drama has alighted at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
It’s that rare play that works brilliantly on several levels at once. It invites us into a world most of us know little about and gets us so involved in its intense internal debates that we only gradually realize the issues at stake are, in fact, universal. We may not all be hearing-impaired, but we’re all clumsy at communicating.
The work focuses on a family of nonconformists, most of whom are writers. Three grown children still live at home with Mom and Dad, including Billy, who has been deaf from birth. Belatedly escaping from his sheltered life, Billy meets a woman who is gradually losing her hearing; she teaches him sign language and introduces him to the deaf community, something his parents had been hoping to avoid.
Dad doesn’t want Billy to define himself by his disability, a reasonable position he argues with characteristic wit and intellectual rigor. But is his attitude, and that of the other family members, purely loving? Or is it tinged with jealousy of Billy’s suddenly exciting life, and his own inability to let go? As the play painfully points out, there’s a fine line between being protective and being possessive.
On another level, Raine asks some fundamental questions about how we establish our personal identity and basic belief system. Is it from our family? Our community? If it’s the latter, what exactly constitutes one’s community? Do we get to decide? Even as Billy attempts to break from his family, his actions increasingly reflect how strongly their interests and values have penetrated his core being.
Then, of course, there’s the overriding issue of communication. Billy feels left out of the boisterous family dinner-table discussions; it’s a source of great frustration and bitterness. But Raine poignantly dramatizes the fact there are many ways to communicate with another person and many ways to avoid doing so. Empathy, she argues, is the key; without it, we’re all functionally deaf.
Director David Cromer brilliantly handles this layered material, infusing both the heated arguments and tender interludes with great passion. His brilliant cast (many of whom are reprising their roles from last year’s off-Broadway production) is led by a brilliant Russell Harvard as Billy. His transition from affable kid to angry activist to lost and confused adult is, well, pitch-perfect.
Tribes runs through April 14 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets are $20 to $70. Information: (213) 628-2772, or www.centertheatregroup.org.