A young woman sits at a piano, running her hands over the keys before slowly starting to pick out the first twinkly phrase of “Clair de lune.” As the notes plink out into an expansive silence, the moody Debussy piece might be at its melancholy finest, because you know she can’t hear it. The moment is a painful pause in Tribes, Nina Raine’s noisy, needle-sharp comedy about the relationship between hearing and deaf communities, now running at ACT Theatre directed by John Langs. In the play’s constant stream of communication, the non-verbal moment speaks volumes about the ways we connect (or disconnect, or fail to connect) to one another and the world around us.
The piano sits in the cozy, cluttered home of an academically minded British family—fittingly, we never know the family name—that spends its time griping and arguing. Words, words, words. Beth is writing a “marriage breakdown detective novel” and her husband, Christopher, is an academic and critical writer, obsessed with the heft and accuracy of language (broadly) and languages (specifically).
Their grown children are all living at home—Dan is writing a wordy thesis about how language is meaningless, Ruth finds her voice singing opera (until she doesn’t). Billy, the youngest, was born deaf and never taught sign language, because his parents didn’t want him to grow up “handicapped.” Billy got by reading lips, and his family thought everything was fine. “No one gets special treatment,” says his dad, in a particularly loud outburst. And indeed, no one does—the line between abuse and affection in this family is awfully smudgy.
Then Billy meets Sylvia, a young woman who grew up speaking sign language with her two deaf parents, and who is slowly losing her own hearing. When she teaches him to sign, Billy finally feels, after a lifetime of being left out of the conversation, what it's like to be heard.
Raine taps beautifully into the nature of language itself. Deeper still, she taps into our emotional connection to language, to the human urge to define and label, evident in the way the majority tends to view differently abled people, the internal divisions within a minority community.
“Hierarchical,” is how Sylvia describes the deaf community, when asked. “And everyone has slept with everyone.”
Hovering over the set at ceiling height, a clever, multi-angled bit of molding (set design by Shawn Ketchum Johnson) serves as a space for supertitles to be projected when characters speak in sign. It's an effective tool, but sadly, since the piece is staged in the round, you'll lose some of the physical poetry of sign language when an actor's back ends up to you.
The ensemble cast, led by an utterly charming Joshua Castille as Billy, is a universally talented bunch, all capable of barreling through the breakneck dialogue with grace and vulnerability (though they seemed to have been encouraged to shout). Allgood is particularly good as Beth, a mother who genuinely thought she was doing her best, as is Evans as Sylvia, a confident young woman losing her hearing and her sense of place in the world. Kjerstine Rose Anderson and Adam Standley as Ruth and Dan, and Frank Corrado as Christopher, bring open-hearted honesty to their character’s infuriating myopia, a hallmark of this family that talks and talks and talks and often says nothing.
While the first act tees up a dysfunctional family thrown into chaos by the arrival of an outsider, the second devolves into melodrama, which feels unnecessary. The stakes were already plenty high before the introduction of legal scandal or mental illness. Because what is life but what we feel? Billy wasn’t allowed to feel deaf. Dan and Ruth can’t seem to feel anything about anyone but themselves. Sylvia isn’t allowed to feel publicly sad about losing her hearing, because the deaf community doesn’t see anything wrong with it. “I can’t even be ironic anymore,” she says. “I love being ironic.”
The nature of communication is a fundamental question of humanity. People communicate in limitless forms—languages are verbal, physical, emotional. Artists gravitate to the medium that best helps them express themselves. The 5 Love Languages has been a bestseller for like 200 years because it’s hard for people to understand that not everyone expresses themselves the same way you do.
The way that sign language lacks tone of voice means that nuance and sarcasm are hard to channel—it’s a very literal language. Could that expressive limitation limit who you are as a person? Spoken language also can’t quite capture the entirety of feeling, the slippery sensations that exist in our limbic system—saying “I love you” is just a pale reproduction of the feeling it seeks to convey. All we can do it try and communicate in the ways we know, and learning someone else’s language doesn’t mean abandoning your own.
Tribes runs through March 26.