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How many tribes do you belong to? You may not think of the groups you are part of as tribes, but they possess the same traits. The members share an identity that unites them, characterized by rituals and specific ways of behaving. Nina Raine's play "Tribes," which just opened at Salt Lake Acting Company in a production that is both eloquent and explosive, takes a multilayered look at the complex nature of tribes: what they seal in and what they shut out.
Billy is a deaf person embedded in a hearing family. That family should be his major tribe, but he is excluded from its belligerent, blustering dynamic. His mother, Beth, taught him to talk and lip-read, but his father, Christopher, announces proudly, "We didn't bring Billy up to be handicapped. … No one gets special treatment."
From the play's opening moments, thanks to director Alexandra Harbold's perceptive staging, we see how the life of this "conventionally unconventional" family swirls around Billy with no effort to include him. All the family members are so self-involved that they barely acknowledge him.
Perhaps they've had to become that way to survive. Christopher is an academic obsessed with the power of language, but he makes no effort to communicate with his family. He steamrolls his children, letting his prejudices rule them, and that has had devastating effects. Son Dan stammers, hears voices and barely functions; he depends on Billy for support, and when that anchor vanishes, his fragile semblance of stability shatters. Daughter Ruth aspires to be an opera singer, but she has no self-confidence or even clear sense of who she is. Beth simply tries to hold things together. These people care about each other, and they share tender moments, but, as Dan succinctly says, "Abusive love is all that's offered here."
When Billy's new girlfriend, Sylvia, teaches him to sign, he becomes part of another tribe, one where he feels more at home: the deaf community. But when Billy asks his family to learn to sign and Sylvia explains, "He's spent his life trying to understand you. Now he thinks you should try and understand him," only Beth is supportive; the rest are shocked and even angry. In another interesting plot twist, Sylvia becomes more disenchanted with the exclusiveness of the deaf world as her hearing deteriorates. "Not everything in my life can be deaf," she tells Billy.
The well-matched cast extracts every nuance from Raine's dense, articulate script. Kudos to SLAC for choosing a hearing-impaired actor to play Billy. Stephen Drabicki's empathetic performance adds another, richer level to the production. Paul Kiernan's brusque, abrasive Christopher is more misguided than malevolent, and Sarah Shippobotham's Beth tries to support her children but seems blind to what they need. As Ruth, Alison Lente just needs a little encouragement to jump-start her life. But the most touching performance comes from Matthew Sincell as Dan. He genuinely cares about Billy but can't get beyond his own neediness and self-destructiveness, which threaten to engulf him. Amy Ware's confident and vivacious Sylvia reveals flashes of uncertainty and doubt.
Harbold keeps everyone together so that they develop a familiar familial rhythm. Shawn Fisher's cluttered kitchen/dining room set resembles the family: eclectic and claustrophobic, intensified by James Craig's dim, atmospheric lighting. Shea Madson's operatic sound design adds a larger-than-life emotional feel.
Raine's consistently engrossing play paints an insightful portrait of the strengths and pitfalls of tribes in our lives. They may offer a safe harbor, but the isolation that sometimes results takes its toll.
Nina Raine's powerful play and emotionally engaging performances make SLAC's "Tribes" a production you won't want to miss.
When • Reviewed Oct. 23; plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6 p.m., through Nov. 15. Additional performances on Tuesdays, Nov. 3 and 10, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays, Nov. 7 and 14, at 2 p.m. Performances Nov. 10 and 14 will be signed for the deaf.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15 to $42 with discounts for students, seniors, groups and those under 30; 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org; contains adult language and material
Running time • Two and a half hours (including an intermission)