British playwright Nina Raine’s Tribes comes to Berkeley Repertory Theatre with a whole lot of buzz gathered from its 2010 premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre and its 2012 New York Drama Desk Award for outstanding play. And there’s a whole lot of buzz in the play as well, because it’s about language, deafness and the difficulty of distinguishing signal from noise.
Born deaf into a hearing family, Billy doesn’t know sign language, because his father didn’t want him stuck in a minority group. But it’s clear from the very beginning that he’s entirely isolated, as his family hollers and cusses at each other about various erudite topics while Billy sits silently eating, not even bothering to try to make sense of it, only occasionally asking what’s wrong or what someone is talking about. You can tell at a glance that he’s used to not being included. Played with deeply affecting, boyish earnestness by James Caverly, Billy has learned not to care what people are rattling on about, just how they’re doing underneath all the blather.
And they do carry on. Billy’s father Christopher (a sharp and sardonic Paul Whitworth, former artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz) is a retired professor with contrarian opinions on everything, which he proclaims with a condescending tone that borders on gleeful. He’s always squabbling with mother Beth (Anita Carey, last seen at Berkeley Rep in Pericles), an aspiring novelist who’s always writing about her screwed-up family.
All of their adult children are living at home again — if you can really call them adults — they behave like peevish grade schoolers. Daniel (played by a hyperactively combative Dan Clegg) is a failed grad student who hears berating voices in his head all the time, and Ruth (a mopey Elizabeth Morton) is a novice opera singer stuck in the cafe circuit. They’re all deeply competitive with each other; one gets the impression that, for all their showy erudition, none of them are particularly good at what they do. And they all love Billy because he doesn’t compete with anyone.
Everything changes when Billy meets an attractive young woman at a party. Sylvia was born hearing to deaf parents and speaks sign language fluently. Only now she’s losing her hearing and isn’t nearly as good at lip-reading as Billy is. As played by Nell Giesslinger, she’s captivatingly clever and charismatic, and the chemistry between the two of them is electric. Quick to find fault with people to begin with, Billy’s family is immediately threatened by him going out with someone so immersed in the deaf culture they’ve always tried to keep at a distance. The tension is high in nearly every scene of California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone’s dynamic staging, even if it is just people sitting around talking. Someone’s always on the spot, and the way the family crowds around Sylvia is suffocating, welcoming her and challenging her in the same breath.
Todd Rosenthal’s superb set tells us almost all we need to know about the family before they even enter. Berkeley Rep’s intimate thrust stage is transformed into a cluttered living room lined floor to ceiling with crammed bookcases, with more books piled on the floor.
So much of the play is about how people communicate: the family’s barbed vocal banter, the eloquent motions of sign language, and entire conversations in silently mouthed words or just meaningful looks. Joan Osato’s video design elegantly incorporates supertitles for most of the above plus for some of Billy’s less comprehensible speech and for bits of opera. Sound designer Jake Rodriguez gives us occasional tastes of muffled audio fog and static, even a clever bit of an orchestra tuning at the start of the play.
Along the way there are lively debates about the relative limitations of spoken and sign languages and whether or how they carry with them corresponding limitations on thought and emotion: Can you feel what you have no words for? But underlying all of these conversations is everyone’s naked self-interest: The family wants Billy all to itself, Billy wants to immerse himself in this new world of people who seem to understand him, and Sylvia wants to help Billy in that but is terrified of losing her place in the hearing world. The dialogue is often hilarious, and the casual cruelty becomes downright brutal in the second act. Raine takes some shortcuts toward the end, and the last couple scenes feel hastily sketched to wrap things up rather than reach what the play appeared to be building to all along. But the last half also contains so many gripping and emotionally wrenching scenes that some respite is welcome. As Sylvia aptly puts it, “Nobody told me it was going to be this noisy going deaf.”
Tribes runs through May 18, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.
All photos courtesy of mellopix.com.