Tribes — Image via


Guthrie Theater
Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg

Nina Raine’s play Tribes — wrapping up this weekend at the Guthrie Theater — focuses its attention on two very different types of community. One is the deaf community, made up of those who have built an identity and common culture around their deafness. The other is the idiosyncratic family of North London intellectuals that provides the play with all but one of its characters. Over the course of the play, the intersection of these two communities reveals what are often painful truths about both, as well as some of the challenges of being part of either.

Tribes — Image via guthrietheater.orgAt the beginning of the play, Billy (John McGinty), who has been deaf since birth, has just moved back in with his parents after graduating from college. Billy’s father, Christopher (Stephen Schnetzer), is an academic and writer whose opposition to all forms of identity politics has motivated him to discourage his son from learning sign language or becoming part of the deaf community. Billy’s mother, Beth (Sally Wingert), an aspiring novelist, has supported this approach and was the person responsible for developing Billy’s impressive lip-reading abilities. Also still living at home are Billy’s siblings: Daniel (Hugh Kennedy), who wants to be an academic like his father but is hampered by the voices he hears in his head, and Ruth (Anna Reichert), who is deeply competitive with her brothers and currently focused on making a name for herself as an opera singer.

Soon after returning home, Billy meets Sylvia (Tracey Maloney) at a deaf community event. Both are a bit out of place, Billy because he has never really been part of the community and Sylvia because she is not deaf — at least not yet. Born to two deaf parents, Sylvia has been hearing all her life but is now starting to go deaf, as her sister did before her. Before long, Billy and Sylvia are in a relationship. She introduces him to the deaf world and to sign language, and he introduces her to his family. For the rest of the play, they follow sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting trajectories; Billy starts asserting his identity as a deaf person for the first time, and Sylvia copes with the trauma of losing her hearing and her guilt at feeling this as a loss.

Tribes — Image via guthrietheater.orgThe first act of Tribes is the more consistently enjoyable part of the play. Much of this time is spent meeting the characters through a series of extended, argumentative conversations. This is how Billy’s family communicates, and Sylvia’s willingness to engage with them on this level endears her to them. Billy, on the other hand, can barely get a word in edgewise, except when he is alone with Daniel, who seems particularly dependent on him for emotional support. The play’s second act moves at a much quicker pace, often seeming to rush through key plot points. However, this act also features one of Tribes‘s most compelling scenes, in which Billy is finally able to seize his family’s attention, signing his feelings furiously as Sylvia translates for them.

With Tribes, Raine has given an intelligent and thoughtful take on well-worn themes of identity and belonging. She has also created a very talky play in which the protagonist struggles to talk. To a hearing audience, at least, Christopher and Sylvia seem to have the most to say, and Daniel’s battle with mental illness also attracts much of the play’s attention. Just as Billy’s family sometimes forgets he is there, the audience is often tempted to do so as well, a fact that reinforces the play’s themes but also generates some regret at not getting to know the character better. Beth and Ruth also seem less than fully fleshed out as characters; both do plenty of talking, but their ideas, thoughts and feelings do not come across as strongly.

The Guthrie’s production is largely well acted. Maloney does a particularly good job at conveying Sylvia’s struggles trying to balance her loyalty to the deaf community with the experience of actually going deaf, subtly introducing changes to her speech and behavior over the course of the play. Another star of the production is the set, with the enormous stacks of books that surround the family’s living area creating an oppressive weight that mirrors what many of the characters seem to feel. If it sometimes seems like Tribes is trying to do more than can really be done in a single two-hour play, it remains a worthwhile and provocative piece of theater.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.