Initially, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s “Tribes” may simply seem to be a play about deaf individuals—those who have the audiological condition of not hearing. However, within just the first scene, you realize that this smartly directed and executed family drama is really about how we all communicate (or don’t) with those closest to us and, more importantly, if we ever really listen.
Directed by Evan Cabnet and set in present-day London, “Tribes” centers on an academic, creative family whose high IQ’s are matched only by their self-regard.
There’s the father, Christopher (John Judd), an academic and an author, and his wife, Beth (Meg Thalken) who is a late-starting novelist writing a “marriage-breakdown detective novel.” The couple consistently argues, utilizing wickedly funny, and at times cruel, one-liners—think of the deadpan Bishops from Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” Their two eldest children, both of whom have recently (and begrudgingly) returned to the nest, follow suit.
Daniel (Ryan Spahn) is a faltering, pot-smoking academic plagued by the belittling voices in his head. Ruth (Monique Barbee) is trying to break out as an opera star by singing arias at the local pub and christenings.
However, what makes this family different is that the youngest member, Billy (Alex Olsen), was born deaf. Granted, the family says that they never made Billy feel any differently—they never learned sign language, Billy was taught to lip-read and speak—and this is a point upon which they pride themselves immensely.
We open with the family gathered around the dinner table. It’s an energetic ordeal—whirling with humor and relatively harmless infighting— and within moments, after everyone has seemingly gotten their say, the family members scatter to their individual corners.
Except for Billy.
From his face and monosyllabic questions, which were often simply brushed off, we gather that he has missed much of the context and content of the conversation; he remains at the table, lonely within his own family.
Things change when Billy meets Sylvia (Claire Siebers), an independent—though at times pensive—young woman who was born to deaf parents and is grappling with the loss of her own hearing.
She teaches Billy to sign and introduces him to a community of deaf individuals, much to the initial dismay of his family. Yet for first time, Billy feels that he can express himself fully, and that he has found a group, a tribe, where he feels at home.
It is this revelation, and Billy’s resultant independence, that causes a rift in the family as everyone comes to terms with how they listen as well as how they are heard.
The actual writing of this play by Nina Raines is both stunning and devastating, and Actors’ cast interprets it genuinely—like when the family argues, the discomfort in the theatre becomes palpable (you know that feeling when a couple starts having a private argument, despite the fact that you are standing right there? This is an amplified version of that). This genuineness carries into all other emotions expressed in the piece.
Another point of authenticity is the various ways in which the actors communicate. The cast’s assumed British accents; Spahn’s stress-induced stuttering, Olsen’s facial expressions when signing, and the increasingly flat tone of Siebers’ voice as she loses her ability to hear all feel unforced and nuanced.
Actors Theatre’s “Tribes” is also really smart in the utilization of sensory elements, as the audience is already keenly in tune with sight and sound due to the nature of the play. Classical music is a major motif—despite that for both Billy and Sylvia music registers as just a dull hum—and the inclusion of subtitles for the signing portions is a poignant touch.
Ultimately, “Tribes” is a subtle, well-acted drama that zooms past a seemingly cacophonous array of issues—love, loss, family—and narrows to a single point that can be expressed in a single question: “Do you hear me?”
“Tribes” will be staged through Dec. 6. Go here for days and times.