As the deaf son of hearing parents in Nina Raine’s turbulent, absorbing “Tribes,” James Caverly’s Billy sits Sphinx-like at family meals, his placid features an invitation to conjecture. Is Billy fully aware, you’re moved to wonder, of the scalding nature of the attacks his abrasively intellectual father levels at his apoplectic mother and high-strung siblings? Does he feel as keenly as they do the tension that seems to vibrate in every household encounter?
No matter how versed you are in the patterns of your family — how well you know your relatives not only by what you might hear, but also by what you might see and surmise and intuit — the answers to these questions deliver a surprising jolt in Raine’s wisdom-packed play at Studio Theatre.
“Billy, put yourself in our position!” his mother Beth (the splendidly sturdy-fragile Nancy Robinette) implores, after Billy finally erupts.
“No — you put yourself in mine!” Billy replies.
And in demanding the family learn to speak to him solely in his newfound language — American Sign — he asserts for what seems like the first time how completely the blood of this contentious, troubled, self-centered clan flows in his veins.
“Tribes” is a play about the cacophony in an argumentative family, about the emotional signals we pick up on or choose to ignore, about the myriad ways we convey and withhold our feelings and the allowances we make, or fail to, for the people we hold dear. It’s also, of course, a play about what it is like to grow up deaf (or go deaf) — and, on a more poetic level, what happens when the sense that has to be compensated for is the one for empathy.
Raine, whose drama premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2010 and played for nearly a year off-Broadway, cleverly maps out the malfunctioning circuitry of communication in Billy’s English-Jewish family. As the story unfolds, and Billy’s relationship deepens with Sylvia (Helen Cespedes) — whose parents are deaf and whose hearing is rapidly failing — the dramatist plays ever more resolutely with an audience’s perception of how thoughts and feelings are exchanged.
In some scenes, surtitles flash on the walls of Wilson Chin’s appealing kitchen set, as Billy and Sylvia sign or as an excited Billy speaks without adequately articulating his consonants. In other scenes, the words projected on the set are merely observations that we assume are passing, unspoken, among family members.
There are signs, the playwright wants us to understand, that require gestures, and others that don’t even require signing.
Studio’s artistic leader, David Muse, is equipped with the intelligence and finesse for this directorial assignment, and the cast he’s assembled is acutely well-suited, from Caverly’s deeply felt Billy to Cespedes’s warmly self-possessed Sylvia. Richard Gallagher and Annie Funke give rewarding dimension to Billy’s brother Daniel and sister Ruth, both dwelling unhappily in the shadow of their impatient, blunt-spoken father, Christopher, here portrayed by Michael Tolaydo with the enjoyably authentic-feeling air of the incurable crank.
Christopher, a retired academic, and Beth, a would-be novelist, have taught the now-grown-up Billy to read lips rather than sign, a decision that Christopher maintains was made on principle, because “we didn’t bring you up as handicapped.” That it has marginalized Billy in both the hearing and deaf worlds doesn’t seem to have penetrated his father’s consciousness. Nor have the troubles of unhappy Ruth, an aspiring opera singer, and of Daniel, at sea in his efforts to follow in his father’s academic footsteps and on meds to control symptoms of schizophrenia. (Allusions to voices, both internal and external, crop up repeatedly in “Tribes.”)
Billy uses his voice until, through Sylvia, he finds a new sense of autonomy and identity in learning to sign. It is one of the many ironies of “Tribes,” however, that as he discovers a vital new facet of himself in the deaf community, Sylvia begins to mourn the loss of her hearing, and, in a sense, a part of herself. Where Billy is finding definition, Sylvia is encountering a blur. The play provides a compelling argument for the creation of landscapes on which both of the tribes can merge.
by Nina Raine. Directed by David Muse. Set, Wilson Chin; lighting, Matthew Richards; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; projections, Erik Trester; sound, Ryan Rumery; director of artistic sign language, Tyrone Giordano; dialects, Gary Logan; dramaturg, Lauren Halvorsen. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. Tickets, $20-$75. Through Feb. 23 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. www.studiotheatre.org.