TRIBES is a gripping, if somewhat uneven, play by Nina Raine, which has garnered accolades in both its run in London at The Royal Court Theatre and it's off-Broadway debut at the Barrow Street Theatre prior to its West Coast premiere Sunday night at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.
The overriding theme, which can be a bit too spot on at times, is about communication - or more precisely how people communicate - told through the story of Billy, a deaf man in his 20's, who grew up in a family that eschewed sign language, for his father saw it as a sign of conformity that would call attention to his son's handicap. Instead, his father, a former professor, insisted Billy adapt to the culture around him - that of hearing individuals - insisting he only read lips. In the first scene, you see how limiting this is for poor Billy, for at the dinner table each family member is particularly argumentative, and think nothing of speaking over each other and rarely listening to what each other has to say. It is dizzying as a hearing audience member, so you can only imagine how one who was deaf could possibly follow this family's conversation coherently.
But Billy, knowing no better growing up, has his world turned upside down when he falls for Sylvia, the daughter of deaf parents, who is going deaf herself. She teaches him sign-language and introduces him to the deaf community, which opens him up to an entire new means of communication from which he was previously isolated, and shows him how his family's attitude toward his deafness isolated him.
The real fireworks begin, however, when Billy introduces Sylvia to his opinionated family, which see her as an interloper seemingly determined to undermine the upbringing of their son. As the father debates Sylvia as to the coarseness of sign-language and its lack of nuance versus the spoken word, the conversation gets increasingly uncomfortable, creating a palpable tension of unease throughout the theatre so real you almost want to gently excuse yourself from the party to avoid the seemingly inevitable blow-up that is sure to follow. It all comes to a boil in a shattering scene in Act 2 when Billy finally confronts his parents and questions their attitude towards his deafness.
What makes this play completely enthralling and emotionally moving are the two performances by Russell Harvard and Susan Pourfar (playing Billy and Sylvia respectively), who both originated their roles in the Off-Broadway production. Their interactions, from the moment they meet to the final scene are filled with such tenderness, kindness, compassion and caring, you can't help but be mesmerized. Whether speaking, signing or simply looking into each other's eyes, they convey every thought, feeling and emotion of these characters with such ease and skill, you forget you are watching a play.
The rest of the cast is strong, but have a tendency to overplay their hand a bit, and ironically for a play about language and nuance, they tend to beat you into submission with their heavy-handed delivery, as if the words alone were not enough to convey the rich subtext of the work.
Deftly directed by David Cromer, and with an excellent supporting team of Scott Pask (scenic design), Jeff Sugg (production design), Keith Parham (lighting) and Daniel Kluger (sound design), "Tribes" at its best, is an enthralling experience that for two briskly paced hours challenges your conventional wisdom of communication, relationships and what it means to be understood.
"Tribes" runs now through 14 April 2013 at the Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., in downtown Los Angeles. To purchase tickets, and to get a complete performance schedule, visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.com, or by calling 213-628.2772.