BOSTON — We’ve seen argumentative intellectual families like this before in British theater, particularly in the plays of Pinter and Stoppard. As Nina Raine’s provocative play, “Tribes,” opens at SpeakEasy Stage Company, the subtitle could be “The family that brays together stays together.”
They’ll shout to the rooftops about anything — the quality of the pasta, post-colonialism, going out with older men, circumcision, nuts (of all kinds). And that’s in the first 30 seconds. The shouters are all part of a Jewish family living under the same roof and driving each other crazy — father and mother, son and daughter, all of whom are seemingly more interested in scoring debate points than in communicating with each other.
Then there’s Billy, the fifth member of the family. Billy can barely make himself heard because he’s deaf. He can lip-read and he can speak haltingly, but his family is often talking past him. He’s also the only one the others love unreservedly and with whom communication is other than a confrontation.
That’s the setup of the Raine play, which has had highly acclaimed runs in London and New York and now comes to Boston (through Oct. 19) in a typical – i.e. terrific -- SpeakEasy production. M. Bevin O’Gara (“Clybourne Park”) repositions the Roberts Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, so we can practically grab the Henning Mankell book or the bottle of wine off Cristina Todesco’s smart, tasteful set. Raine's and O'Gara's use of music, noise, and silence is exquisite. (Kudos to all the designers, particularly to Arshan Gailus (sound) and Garrett Herzig (projection), for making the production so sensual.)
Not that we would want to join this family for dinner. Except for Billy, these are not likable people. The father (Patrick Shea) is incredibly smug, the mother (Adrianne Krstansky) all over the place, the son (Nael Nacer) a bully and the daughter (Kathryn Myles) a whiner. But the excellent ensemble is having a good time with these neurotics and the family kind of grows on you. The cast is obviously listening to each other even while they’re playing characters who don’t.
It’s Billy, though, who’s the center of the play, trying to fit into his tribe of a family until Sylvia, who’s losing her hearing comes along and he finds greater succor in the tribe of deaf people. James Caverly and Erica Spyres as the two lovers are also the heart of the ensemble. Caverly is deaf, himself, and fully inhabits Billy — his pain and frustration, as well as his joy at finding love and a place in the world.
And Spyres is out of this world, exuding wit and wisdom in the way she parries with Billy’s father and brother as well as the way in which she navigates the romantic ups and downs of her love affair with Billy. The talent pool of leading ladies in Boston is getting to be quite something and she’s a prime example.
Raine became interested in using deafness as her subject matter when she saw a documentary in which deaf parents-to-be were hoping that their newborn would be born deaf and “Tribes” plays with several corollaries of that thesis. Is it better for Billy to sign or try to speak? Is separatism a better way of making his way than assimiliation? Which is superior, intellect or emotion? Is Billy loved because he isn't a threat? How does one build an identity? And despite that family in the documentary, is Sylvia right when she says that deafness is a handicap?
The playwright doesn’t make you feel you’re watching an “issue” play, though there are times it seems like this generation’s “Children of a Lesser God.” That’s not a bad thing, just a reminder that “Tribes” might not be destined for the longest shelf life in the world. And there are other times in the play you wish the four “hearing” characters were less extreme. There are other melodramatic touches in the second act that make important points about the characters’ fears and desires, but the melodrama is also distracting.
Raine is an excellent writer, though, and if she uses a Hollywood-ish device here and there her ability to articulate her engagement with the material transcends tribalism. Or at least she makes you realize that tribes manifest themselves in all kinds of ways and that they can be both broadening and narrowing. But she’s landed with a great tribe in Boston — SpeakEasy shows are almost always a broadening experience.
This program aired on September 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.