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Tribes — Philadelphia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theatre

Tribes interior Communication is constant in the London home Christopher and Beth share with their three children. If members of the family are not involved in some raucous, competitive conversation, computers or some other technological device provides the cacophony. Even when the group is together and pair is chatting  or having at a row at the communal table, Christopher is the corner repeating the Chinese phrases coming from his laptop, or Ruth, the daughter of the house, washes the premises in Saint-Saëns as she listens to “Samson et Delilah” to practice her singing. Sound is everywhere.

       The domicile Christopher and Beth preside over is rarely still. Its denizens are restless, curious, busy, talkative, explosive people who have made a neat lifestyle, a cocoon of sorts, from their scattershot, rambunctious existence. Despite more than a little rancor flowing freely among  them, there is ample shelter, security, and unconditional love to be found amid the crammed bookcases, cluttered tables, and well-stocked pantry that always includes nuts that have gone old or bad in their shells.

       The family Nina Raine depicts in her play about bonds and common ground, “Tribes,” is a unit. It splinters sometimes, one child going off to school or forging and adult life with a partner, but it always comes back together, much to Christopher’s grumbling, and probably feigned, chagrin.

      To varying degrees and with varying consequences, some manifested in behavioral tics, the family enjoys its free-wheeling, free-swinging mess of a daily life.  Except for the youngest of the children, a son, Billy, who was born deaf but, thanks to Beth, speaks clearly and has cochlear implants that allow him to hear when he chooses. Billy is also a master of reading lips.

        Although he seems happy amid his garrulous, carping clan when we first meet Billy, the lights go down on the first scene of Stuart Carden’s production of “Tribes” for the Philadelphia Theatre Company, and the young man, newly returned from university, is sitting alone under a lamp looking isolated and perplexed.

        The traffic in his home is too brisk for Billy, especially the verbal traffic. He smiles wanly in the way people do when they don’t quite understand what someone says but are either too polite or too uninterested to ask them to repeat it. Now that he’s been away from his family for a time, Billy feels a bit out of place. He follows some of what is going on, but he can’t track of it all, and this bothers him and makes him feel contemplative. He loves his parents and siblings, and he is spared most of the sharp taunting and one-upmanship they inflict on each other, Christopher most of all, but he feels left out. He is a member of the tribe but not as integral a part of it as the others are.

       “Tribes” covers a lot of ground. It is play about finding a place to belong, a place that suits and nurtures you’re identity. It delves into the community deaf people have formed but strives to show the world an individual who happens to be deaf finds outside that community, in his or her family and among a world at large. Tribes, by nature, embrace and protect, but they also exact a great toll in the rules and standards they establish for one to maintain full membership. There is a correctness among sets and subsets just as there is a broader,  more diverse society. “Tribes” shows how one member of a family tries to fit within it while testing a place in another tribe, one tied more by a physical condition than by blood. Billy’s journey in Raine’s play is deep and vast. In includes discoveries the importance of which he exaggerates at first, as most newcomers or converts to a group do, and also involves his maturing as a human, as the member of a minority, and as a member of a family.

       To Raine’s credit, she never loses sight of Billy’s nuclear family as she shows him exploring a wider world. Christopher, Beth, Ruth, and the oldest child in the family, Daniel, remain as much a focus of “Tribes” as Billy is. Much is seen, much is said, and much is signed (in the manual vocabulary used by the deaf), and much of it in interesting and enlightening.

       The problem in Carden’s production is “Tribes” never coalesces to become a whole. You wonder often where a passage is leading, and you don’t get an answer. The show seems as random as the family it depicts. You see lots of bits, but they don’t organize neatly into an entirety. “Tribes” often seems to be heading somewhere new without accounting for the ground covered.

“Tribes’s” best moments happen in individual sequences. Its best dramatic portions are as isolated as Billy is. They come as intense visitors on a sea of sameness. Nerves, raw and exposed, are seen throughout “Tribes.” Concentrated emotion is invested in two scenes. They are poignant and touching, as several sequences of “Tribes” are, but they don’t provide total theatrical satisfaction. There’s always a sense something is missing, that something isn’t accessible enough, that some defining point has not been made. The family we see in so  completely human in their foibles, irritations, etc., you would expect them to have more effect. But only those few bits where something happens that alters the landscape, mostly having to do with Billy’s relationship with a woman, Sylvia, register strongly enough to give Carden’s production some weight, some substance to hang on to and ride in a way that is emotionally affecting.

        You like Christopher, Beth, Ruth, and Daniel, but you rarely feel for them, even when you see Daniel in the throes of a malaise that traumatizes him and makes life difficult in a manner that is different from the way deafness affects Billy, or when you hear Ruth make a candid assessment of her prospects as a singer. Carden’s cast is remarkable, but they don’t engender sympathy. Oddly enough, only Beth, the mother who doesn’t ask for anything and who does give her children some grounding, made me care about how she was bearing up under all of the Stűrm und Drang her family can muster.

         “Tribes’ has something to say about fulfillment.  Daniel, via a doctoral thesis; Ruth, through classical singing; and Billy, in reading lips, are trying to achieve as much as their parents did as an academic (Christopher) and a novelist (Beth), or at least meet Christopher’s stringent expectations. Billy has the most obvious disability, and receives the most focus, but his siblings lack backbone. It is interesting to see how the family structure, the tribal instinct, makes up for these obstacles.

         It is evident that Raine covers interesting ground. In spite of that, “Tribes” fails to grab you and keep you rapt or involved. It remains a likeable, diverting watch that stirs at times but never shakes or invite you to intense engagement, not even when Billy or Daniel seems to be in crisis.

        Billy was not raised in a deaf milieu. Christopher and Beth intentionally kept him in a hearing world. Beth coached him in speaking. He received cochlear devices to help him hear. Perceiving and distinguishing sound is at time a chore, but Billy is equipped with an extraordinary talent for lip reading and can get along.

        That doesn’t mean he feels included. In the course of “Tribes,” he says he felt like a mascot in his family, the quiet little brother who doesn’t argue and doesn’t get teased or verbally abused as much as his parents and sibs. His world changes when he goes to a party and meets Sylvia.

         Billy does not understand sign language, but he notices Sylvia using it and also notices that she can hear.  This fascinates him. She follows Sylvia when she takes a second to leave the side of her boyfriend, and they have a touch-and-go conversation that, of course, comes around to hearing.

          Sylvia is the daughter of two deaf parents. Her experience is the opposite of Billy’s. He was conditioned to live in a hearing home. Sylvia learned sign language and other skills that make it congenial for her to live with the non-hearing. She is surprised that Billy has so little contact with the deaf community and almost a disdain for signing, something Christopher forbid.

       The meeting turns into a relationship, one-sided at first because Sylvia retains her boyfriend for a bit. While Billy is smitten with Sylvia, he is introduced to a new world, a community of deaf people his own age. Sylvia is part of the world because of her parents and also because her hearing is diminishing and she going deaf in stages that are too rapid for her liking.

       To Billy, the deaf community is a brave new world. He revels in it, unlike Sylvia who doesn’t mind that anyone is deaf but is tired of the same people with the same gossip on a constant basis. She has been a member of this out-of-family tribe for a while and she is ready to abandon it while Billy is excited by it. Billy’s and Sylvia’s worlds intersect and conflict. The course of their love, possibly true, does not smoothly. Billy’s family is also a factor in that. They like Sylvia, but they worry a deaf couple making their way in the world, for which Sylvia has an example, and about losing Billy to another tribe.

       The second fear is well-founded. Billy becomes immersed in the deaf community that was hidden from him and, in an odd way, since his family does not ignore him, allows him to get more personal attention, more voice. Like many a neophyte, he adores everything that is new to him and a place where he can tune out the noise of his home and learn a new way to communicate, the only one that was barred from his house, sign language.

       The relationship between Billy and Sylvia takes up at least a third of “Tribes” and is a part that gets high attention, especially because of their many ups and downs and each character’s reasons for them.

         As I mentioned, Raine never loses sight of Billy’s immediate family for long. His siblings do not evolve or progress as he does. They seem to resign themselves to some level of mediocrity and relinquish ambition for the coziness at home, Daniel in particular. Daniel may not grow, but he changes in unexpected ways. For instance, he reacts in ways that become physically debilitating to Billy’s absence and short estrangement from the family. Raine does not satisfactorily explain the basis or reason for this. Unless I missed something crucial, I do not understand Daniel’s dependence on Billy’s company and why he is so deleteriously affected without it.

        Tribes, whether they be defined in blood like a family, or by having something in common, like the deaf community, can provide benefit and foster comfort, but they can be also be stifling and stultifying. In Raine’s play, you see the balance, but the lure of the tribe has the lasting advantage. Raine keeps you watching what happens among the family and with Billy and Sylvia, but she, or Carden, often has you wondering about the overall point or if something monumental is going to happen. The frustrating part is I can’t think of anything Raine or Carden could do to improve the production. It’s clear, the warm rowdiness of the family comes through, the nature of tribes and the conflict of intersecting tribes is present, romance blooms and falters and blooms, characters are interesting, and the acting is superb. Maybe “Tribes” is so lifelike, it doesn’t have neat ends to tie into a thematic bow. I just kept feeling some element was missing. I wish I could put my finger on what it is.

       The cast of “Tribes” at PTC’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre is a tight ensemble that inhabits the Roberts stage as naturally as if it was their residence.

       Particularly strong is Laurie Klatscher as Beth, a maternal figure who , at age 60, does not agree with her husband that she is “old” and who maintains her creative life as an author. Klatscher not only shows warmth but is an emotional anchor to her husband and brood. Beth is the voice of reason and the one who doles out affection. She’s Mommy who kisses the boo-boo no matter how old the person who has it — Her children range from 22 to 30. — or how deep the wound is.

        Klatscher’s Beth is always  nicely occupied whether she’s serving a meal or doing some work around the central table. Hers is a sweet, organic performance that brings out the reality in Beth and sets the tone for the other characters.

         Tad Cooley makes his professional theater debut as Billy, and all should regard the occasion as auspicious.

         Left at that table, under the single light in that first scene, Cooley completely expresses Billy’s loneliness and feeling of being removed from the ongoing fracas in his family home.

          Throughout the first scenes in which we see him, Cooley endows Billy with a sweet shyness. You know, however, he retains his family’s penchant for badinage when he woos Sylvia. Billy can counter anything Sylvia says with the best of flirts. The shyness gives way to some verve and gift of gab. In their first exchange, you can see Billy and Sylvia may be tied by more than deafness. A chemistry emerges.

        As Billy grows, Cooley’s performance keeps up with him. Even when Billy makes difficult decisions and stern pronouncements as he takes more control of his life, or when he makes mistakes that might prove costly in various ways, Cooley deftly etches the changes in the young man’s character and chronicles his maturing. Cooley is called on to display a great range from Billy’s acceptance of his “mascot” role to his lashing out against never being heard in spite of having a voice. Because of the realistic way in which Cooley builds his character, Billy remains likeable and understood throughout.

       Amanda Kearns sets a knowing, worldly tone as Sylvia. She has seen and experienced so  much more than Billy. She has coped with the different since she was born. Kearns’s Sylvia is a solid, grounded character who is, nonetheless worried because of her own hearing loss and at times impatient with Billy and his finding company in a world she is ready to leave behind in important ways.

      Kearns is firm and confident in her approach. Even scenes in which she admits her fears have some strength.

       John Judd is a roaring, blustering Christopher, a spoiled 60 -year-old who is always ragging his children, his way of showing love, and who is always reading something or studying Chinese or embroiled in a project. Like Klatscher, Judd gives “Tribes” a core of reality. He is a credible and irascible paterfamilias.

        Alex Hoeffler is a man of many moods as Daniel, who can be cantankerous and tormenting or be racked by nervous symptoms like stuttering or bouts of weakness. Daniel seems depressed for much of “Tribes’s” second act, and Hoeffler catches the distracted, disheveled look and weary expression of someone who is going through personal pain.

      Robin Abramson shows how much Ruth needs to be within the womb of her family. Intellectually independent, she strives on the care and the mockery that amounts to sympathy in her household.

      Narelle Sissons’s set is crowded, dusty, comfy, and book-laden in just the way you’d expect Christopher and Beth’s house to be. Sissons finds interesting places to cram books. They’re everywhere. She is also clever in making sure with through all the clutter, clean playing spaces emerge around the table and various areas where characters can sit.

        “Tribes” runs through Sunday, February 23 in a production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad & Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m.  Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $59 to $46 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or going online to www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

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2 comments on “Tribes — Philadelphia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theatre

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