by Clark Groome
Actions speak louder than words. The truth of that statement is abundantly clear in Nina Raine’s highly praised “Tribes,” the drama about a creative and generally obnoxious family living in modern day London.
Beth and Christopher are parents to Daniel, Ruth and Billy. All in the family are hearing except Billy, who was born deaf.
The story revolves around how and why he never learned to sign and, after meeting Sylvia, how liberated he feels finally being able to be part of the deaf world into which he was born. His family has protected him from being viewed as different by teaching him how to speak and how to read lips. The problem is Billy has never really felt he belonged anywhere.
Sylvia was born as a hearing child to deaf parents. As she aged, however, her hearing began to deteriorate. Because she learned sign language in order to communicate with her family, she is prepared for the inevitability of her own deafness. When she and Billy fall in love, she teaches him how to sign.
“Tribes,” getting an interesting production at the Philadelphia Theatre Company through Feb. 23, deals with serious issues that go beyond deafness. Anyone who has grown up feeling different, feeling separate from the other members of his family and society, can relate to how Billy feels.
While the issues are important, it would have been helpful if Billy’s family hadn’t been so unattractive, noisy and unlikeable. How this sweet kid survived the bombast that were family dinners and other conversations is beyond me. The question that has been raised about them is “why, if they can hear, don’t they listen?”
The answer is that they’re all so self-absorbed, so certain that they know what’s right that they don’t even bother trying.
The result is an expository first act that is very off-putting. Things are better in the second act when Billy finally tells his parents and siblings how he feels, all of it in sign language translated by Sylvia.
Stuart Carden directed the PTC production, which is a co-production with Pittsburgh’s City Theatre Company. The play is set on Narelle Sissons’ spectacular set, which has been warmly lighted by Andrew David Ostrowski. The always reliable Janus Stefanowicz designed the costumes. Mike Tutaj designed the affecting and effective sound and projections.
Carden’s directorial approach is to make Billy’s family as loud and profane as possible. While the words are obviously the playwright’s, the delivery is not.
While Robin Abramson (Billy’s sister Ruth), Alex Hoeffler (his brother Daniel), Laurie Klatscher and John Judd (mother and father) are all able actors, their performances here do nothing to make their characters in the slightest bit worthy of our time,
On the other hand, Tad Colley’s Billy and, to a lesser degree, Amanda Kearns’ Sylvia, are both impressive and appealing. Too bad it takes the play so long to get to their stories.
For tickets call 215-985-0420 or visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.