By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The debate over mainstreaming children of special needs has raged in this country for many years with advocates on both sides making their cases. Is it advantageous to make special needs children feel inclusive and not at all different by having them work side by side with ordinary students? Or should they be given special care and tools that keep them outside of regular classrooms, but give them the capacity to cope and integrate better into society?
This is a central question that is raised within Nina Raine’s Tribes. Are the nuclear family members of parents and siblings doing a service to their deaf son and brother by not teaching him sign language and thus making him conform to hearing society without the obvious trappings of a person who signs? Or are they being selfish by not having his deafness compromise their lifestyles and force them to learn sign language as a way of more effectively communicating with him?
Does withholding the instruction of sign language to Billy, played with remarkable precision by deaf actor Brian Andrew Cheslik, constitute a form of abuse or is it, as his parents claim, just tough love?
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, this Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré production presents Raine’s thought-provoking work (it won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Best Play) in a somewhat confusing fashion. It is quickly established that the family resides in the United Kingdom, but their British accents seem to vanish at times throughout the second act. One can only hope it was a deliberate measure undertaken by dialect coach Amy Chaffe to ensure the local audience could understand the actors better. After all, the dynamic of this family is to argue with one another constantly. At times there seems to be a need for individuals to hear their voices above the din of the others and scenes often devolve into a shouting match.
We see Billy early on in the opening scenes, a quiet bump on the family log as his vocally active parents and his brother and sister carry on conversations which largely ignore him. These self-absorbed, inane and odious family members engage in small talk and being deaf, Billy is low man in the family pecking order.
John Neisler plays Christopher, the elderly reprobate father. His character is largely unlikeable and unyielding in his philosophy. He has convinced himself he has prepared Billy to be able to deal with the world of the hearing better by withholding that which would make him different. Christopher is distant and at times cuts himself off from other members of the family in his quest to learn Chinese, donning headphones that make him as deaf to his wife, daughter and sons as Billy is to the rest of them.
As Beth, actor Liann Pattison has compassion for her son, but it is largely reactive after her husband or her children do something to Billy which alienates him or makes him feel blue. Billy’s two egocentric siblings are Ruth, played by Allison Blaize, and Daniel, played by Danny Yoerges, who is a demanding and barely functional schizophrenic. This family’s use of blue, coarse and profane language is also noteworthy with copious amount of expletives. (This show is not for the kiddies.)
The siblings are a study in contrast. Ruth is attempting to jump-start an opera career, something even her deaf sibling Billy intuits will never happen. She simply lacks the talent and commitment. Daniel, who hears voices, has moved back into his family home following a breakup with his girlfriend. He is a psychological and emotional mess, co-dependent with Billy and given to frequent fits of stuttering as the play continues and his life spins out of control.
Billy’s unhappy and unfulfilled life takes a turn for the better when he meets Sylvia, played with conviction by Kati Schwartz, an attractive hearing girl from a family with deafness as part of its DNA. Her parents are both deaf and they had passed the gene on to her older sister. Now, she is experiencing hearing loss on a significant scale and knows it is only a matter of time before she, too, will be totally deaf.
Despite her having another boyfriend, Sylvia is intrigued by Billy. He is fascinated by her ability to sign and be expressive. Her parents have instructed her in how to sign in order to be able to communicate with her. It is the opposite with Billy’s family, who would rather not be bothered with dealing with Billy’s handicap directly. Sylvia is impressed with his ability to lip-read quickly, a defensive mechanism he has taught himself while dealing with his family. She begins teaching Billy sign language and his world expands exponentially.
As Billy learns how to communicate more openly and expressively, he realizes how selfish his family had been, denying him a connection to the non-hearing world. Sylvia becomes closer to Billy, but his willful plunge into deaf society is troubling to her. She would like to distance herself from the deaf world while she still can. Billy’s newfound attraction to other deaf people makes that problematic.
As Billy becomes more proficient with his sign language skills, he also becomes more combative with his family. He questions their motivation in not teaching him the skills he needed to grow as well as why they did not want to learn signing in order to directly communicate with him. No longer emotionally stunted, he begins to push back and demands they learn to sign with him.
Billy’s emergence from his deaf shell has profound implications for the other family members who are forced to examine their past actions from his perspective. As Billy becomes stronger, Daniel reacts inappropriately with Sylvia, another indication in addition to his stuttering that he is having a psychotic break.
Billy’s lip reading skills are soon tapped by legal authorities to determine what criminals might be saying to one another in videotapes without audio. At first, this job he secures through Sylvia is enough to give him a measure of independence, but when he takes shortcuts to surmise what is being said, just as he has done with his family from an early age, and swears to it legally, there are consequences. The brothers confront one another with Billy emerging as the stronger of the two.
Tribes clearly establishes the metaphor found in its title. All of these characters have difficulties in communicating with each other just as different tribes might establish their own language. We are left to interpret for ourselves if their initial behavior is apathetic or abusive. How they respond to Billy’s demands and deal with him directly will determine if they can function as a family unit and whether he has a chance to develop a better relationship with Sylvia in the future.
Raine’s use of music cues is notable throughout the work. James Lanius designed impressive projections that paint across the darkened stage in transitions from scene to scene. Raine spells out specific times when words are projected onto the stage so that we can tell what is being signed or, in some cases, thought by the characters. These seamless transitions with musical outros – oftentimes opera arias –are especially effective and beautiful.
The production’s set design by Joan Long works well and Joey Moro’s lighting is superb, especially when coupled with Lanius’ beautifully rendered projections. The contemporary costumes by Natalie Burton are also good.
Tribes by Nina Raine continues its run at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 616 St. Peter Street in New Orleans, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and a matinee at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday. There will be no shows on the weekend of April 22-24 due to the French Quarter Festival. The run will finish its run on the weekend of April 29 – May 1. For tickets call 504-522-2081 or click here.