New drama, Tribes, speaks loudly for the deaf at La Jolla Playhouse
By Diana Saenger
Taking a good look at the set of “Tribes” before the play got underway at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre recently, it was easy to begin to understand its message: We all belong to a tribe of sorts.
The two-story house clearly represents different areas for the family members who live there. The long dining-room table is not only a place where conversations happen over a meal, but where mother Beth (Lee Roy Rogers) and daughter Ruth (Dina Thomas) can fold clothes together and discuss the bitter and loud behavior of their husband/father Christopher (Jeff Still), and how unhappy Ruth is with her own life.
A cozy lounge chair with ottoman and clothes littered around it seems a safe haven for son Daniel (Thomas DellaMonica), who hears voices in his head, can’t find a job, and at times acts as if he is bipolar. Shelves of art objects and a piano played only on rare occasions, whisper that at one time, Beth and Christopher might have been a happy couple. Now they fight constantly, causing riffs among their three children.
Billy (Russell Harvard), who is deaf, has just returned home and even though it’s mostly loud arguing or obscenities bouncing off the wall, Billy sticks his head out and waves for his family members to share with him what’s going on. His family never wanted Billy to feel “different” by learning sign language, so instead, he must read lips.
When he meets Sylvia (Meghan O’Neill) at a club, they strike up a conversation. She is slowly losing her hearing and signs. Billy falls for her and brings her home to meet the family. Daniel is angry, pouts and yells at Sylvia not take to Billy away. “Billy belongs to me!” he shouts.
Christopher is also upset, but for a different reason, and grills Sylvia until she cries. He wants to know why Billy wants to sign instead of communicating the way they have for years.
Playwright Nina Raine ponders the idea of how language (or the lack of it) can change our entire world and the way we respond to it. In real life, Harvard knows this first hand, as he is deaf and has experienced life as both one who signs and is a lip-reader.
It’s Harvard’s raw emotions, which he instills in Billy, that come across as a hand grasping for a life preserver. Billy becomes filled with rage when his family refuses to include him in their conversations. But when he decides to move in with Sylvia, the household is shaken, as if his departure would bring the second floor of the house crashing down on their heads.
It’s only with a very emotional and volatile outburst that Billy makes them understand that they never listened to him. By never allowing him to be part of all the conversions going on around him, Billy felt they never really cared about him.
The realization that sets in is like an atomic bomb going off, and the faces of family members say more about Raine’s intentions with this play than her two-hour-long script ever could.
The show contains profanity, but never without punctuating the cause. The cast is superb. “Tribes” is a show patrons will reflect on long after the sun rises the next morning.
If you go
When: Now-July 21
Where: Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
Box Office: (858) 550-1010
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