Early on, ‘Tribes’ sets a standard for excellence
BOSTON — There’s hearing. And then there’s hearing. There’s communication And then there’s
communication — especially communication that is hampered by indifference or disability.
What happens when disability or indifference affect communication within a family unit is at the heart of the Speakeasy Stage Company’s production of Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” being staged the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct. 12
The 2013-14 theater season is young, but “Tribes” has set a standard for other productions to aspire to, with a fine ensemble cast and outstanding production values from a design team that seems to have really relished working together.
The British family in “Tribes” can argue about anything — the quality of the nuts or pasta being served, politics, you name it.
Father Christopher (Patrick Shea) is an opinionated, sharp-tongued academic, with no nit too small to pick. Mother Beth (Adrianne Krstansky), it appears, wants to be a novelist — at least this week.
Sister Ruth (Kathryn Miles) has dreams of an opera career, but for now she is performing opera in a pub. Her character is not as finely-drawn as the others — certainly not the actress’ fault.
Nael Nacer is given the most work to do as the troubled older brother Daniel, who is in the middle of a thesis on how “language doesn’t determine meaning” but is also hearing voices.
But while four members of the family are fully engaged, the fifth member of the family — Billy, played by James Caverly, who is deaf and a member of the National Theatre for the Deaf — has grown up without learning American Sign Language (ASL), the most common form of communication among the deaf and hearing impaired. He has painstakingly learned to read lips and speak, and been treated as just another member of the family.
He speaks, haltingly, however, and finds himself mostly left out of the vigorous back-and-forths that mark family discussions.
Things change dramatically when he has his first real experience with a woman — Sylvia (Erica Spyres), the daughter of two deaf parents how now finds herself slowly going deaf.
Spyres first really caught the attention of reviewers in her IRNE-Award winning turn as Clara in Speakeasy’s 2008 “The Light in the Piazza,” and has built from there with a series of fine performances in disparate roles.
Here she learned ASL to be credible as the woman who brings both love and ASL into Billy’s life.
At one point she compares their situations and declares him luckier than her.
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” she tells Billy. “Yes, I do,” he says.
With Sylvia, Billy enters the world of deaf culture, and “Tribes” is a bit of a primer on that world and its hierarchy, where apparently those born deaf who communicate through ASL are at the top of the pyramid.
Dan doubts the wisdom of Billy being immersed in deaf culture and getting heavily involved with Sylvia, and he takes actions that he hope will derail it.
Billy also gets a gig transcribing the testimony of deaf witnesses, furthering his new-found independence.
Events come to a head when Billy decides he will no longer speak to his family, and demands that they learn ASL if they want to communicate with him
“I’ve had to fit in,” he says. “You can’t be bothered.”
Director M. Bevin O’Gara has engineered a seamless integration of the deaf Cleverly into the production, using an interpreter to convey her notes. I have the utmost respect for Nael Nacer and his work, but felt he could have been reined in a bit in the scenes where, as someone who has always been close to Billy, he declines rapidly as Billy pulls away from him and the family.
The designers have all outdone each other here, including Christina Todesco’s well-laid-out, comfortable home that occupies the center of the versatile Roberts Studio Theatre. Add to that the exquisite sound design of Arshan Gailus, the informative, descriptive, timely and well-placed projections by Garrett Herzig, Annie Wiergand’s effective lighting and Mary Lauve’s costumes.
Theater-goers note: Because of the configuration being used in the Roberts Studio Theatre of the Calderwood Pavilion, late-comers will not be seated until intermission and those leaving the theater during the first or second act will not be allowed to re-enter.
Take heed, because you don’t want to miss out.
The Speakeasy Stage Company Production of Nina Raine’s “Tribes.” Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Set design by Christina Todesco. Projections by Garrett Herzig. Sound design of Arshan Gailus. Costume design by Mary Lauve. Lighting by Annie Wiergand. Through Oct. 12 in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts. speakeasystage.com.