Listen Up: Berkeley Rep Sounds Off on Deaf Culture
and Family Dysfunction
By Lou Fancher Corespondent for SFWeekly
Words are everywhere and nowhere in Berkeley Rep's Tribes.
Bound in the books spilling off scenic designer Todd Rosenthal's towering bookshelves, splashing themselves in subtitles across the set, pouring out in a cacophony from the verbose British family around which the play revolves, and dancing in the ballerina-like gestures of American Sign Language, words almost seem to be playwright Nina Raine's main character. But in a play about hearing, it is the conversational silences — gaping misunderstandings or refusals to listen — that demand attention.
Tribes' linchpin is Billy, a deaf young man raised in a hearing family and taught to lip-read. Smothered by their constant arguing, he is resigned to being largely ignored, until he meets Sylvia, a woman raised by deaf parents who is losing her hearing. Sylvia teaches him to sign (captions appearing as the actors sign) and the breech — an affront to his domineering father's scathing dismissal of sign language as "broken English" — disrupts the family. Billy's father, Christopher, speaks only in outbursts. Criticisms fall like torrential rain on two of his three children: His daughter Ruth's love interest is soft as a bagel; his older son Daniel's girlfriend "has the charisma of a bus shelter." Ruth and Daniel, in turn, are deaf to their own snarky, competitive exchanges involving her operatic aspirations and his unfinished academic thesis. Beth, their mother, protests against the bickering, but her objections are muted by sexual chemistry with her husband and the distracting mystery novel she's perpetually writing.
Clarity comes in the first act from Sylvia, who beguiles the family by outwitting them. Explaining the intricacies and hierarchy of the deaf community with a collage of gestural and spoken communication, she gets the family's rare approval. Their acceptance of Sylvia marks a dramatic step away from Billy, who's left standing alone, the rest of his clan gathering around Sylvia as she plays the piano.
If Act I is filled with tremendous humor and horribly cruel conversations that manage also to be funny, then Act II is where the comic cover is lifted and the underlying bugs are unleashed. Daniel puts his need to be the most-loved into kissing Sylvia and sneakily suggesting to Billy that she is less than ideal; Billy's job — transcribing criminals' words, caught on surveillance tapes, for use in courtroom prosecutions — puffs his pride, but leads him to add "guessed" words to the casework.
And just when it seems no one will ever toss the gauntlet at the wrathful family's feet, Billy refuses to speak to them in anything but sign language. "Yelling" at them (turning sign language into something resembling a martial art), Billy is finally heard. Eventually, Sylvia splits, trying to deny deafness by physical departure. In a final scene, Raine has the family reuniting in a disjointed fashion, suggesting a permanent limp will remain in their language.
Director Jonathan Moscone instinctively (and adeptly) steers toward the heart of this family drama. The play may be about finding one's people, one's tribe, but Moscone never forgets how the alchemy of human desire, thrown into the cauldron of a family, creates a volatile potion that is the play's centerpoint.
Paul Whitworth (as Christopher), best known as former head of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, snaps the bandwidth of his role with near-perfect twang and Anita Carey (as Beth, the mother) brings sophistication and subtlety to a character who could become forgettable — but isn't — amid the surrounding brouhaha. Dan Clegg (Daniel) and Elizabeth Morton (Ruth) fill each scene with high-pitched energy. Vibrating at a lower, rich frequency, James Caverly (a deaf actor also involved with the National Theatre of the Deaf) as Billy and Neil Geisslinger (a veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as Sylvia, make their points without being preachy.
If, in the end, you miss a word or ignore a subtitle, you won't miss out. Tribes displays speech as sound — and reminds us that language's meaning more often resides in soulful silences or the breath between words.