Tribes

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 1, 2012

Tribes made me excited about New York theatre again; I haven't been this knocked out by a play in a long time—maybe not since Our Town opened at Barrow Street Theatre under the direction of David Cromer. Tribes is at the Barrow Street, directed by Cromer. Coincidence? I think not.

Tribes is about a young man named Billy who has recently returned, as an adult, to his parents' home. His brother Daniel and sister Ruth have similarly come back to the nest, for reasons that are never explicitly spelled out; so we have here a household of five grown if not entirely grown up individuals. Billy is deaf, and his parents Christopher and Beth brought him up in this otherwise hearing (vocal! musical!) family as if he were not, not teaching him sign language and instead teaching him to speak. We meet them at the dinner table on a night that appears to be both chaotic and run-of-the-mill. The room is filled with conversation, debate, chatter, sniping—a lot of it about opera, of all things—and Billy's head bobs from one to other, reading lips to keep up. It's a gorgeous, thrilling scene that perfectly sets up what's to follow.

The catalyst for the drama in Tribes is a young woman named Sylvia who is the daughter of deaf parents and becoming deaf herself. Each of the six characters goes through important transformation through the course of the play, and the power of Nina Raine's writing and Cromer's production is such that the audience does too.

I love this play because it's all about empathy, something we encounter far too little in our short-attention-span everything's-a-competition American Idol culture. The differing points of view that Raine presents here astound and sometimes confound, but it's the balance in her presentation that's most remarkable. She doesn't take sides; she lets us try on half a dozen pairs of shoes and see how they fit. Her play's title is finally entirely apt, because Tribes is indeed about finding the one you belong to. If any.

Cromer's staging—in the round, rendering the Barrow Street space a thousand times more intimate than it was in Our Town (when it was already astonishingly up-close-and-personal)—is brilliant and unobtrusive. The dining room designed by Scott Pask is the household's town square, littered variously with bits of each of its inhabitants along with the stuff you'd expect to find there. Tristan Raines's costumes telegraph the characters' personalities with immense efficiency and Keith Parham's lighting, Jeff Sugg's projections, and Daniel Kluger's sound build on this world with evocative detail.

The six-member ensemble feels pitch perfect, and possess the requisite chemistry to convince us that they are a loving family: Will Brill (Daniel), Russell Harvard (Billy), Jeff Perry (Christopher), Susan Pourfar (Sylvia), Gayle Rankin (Ruth), and Mare Winningham (Beth) take us heart and soul into their characters in performances that singly and together are compassionate, intelligent, and profoundly moving. As is Tribes itself: I was impressed, when my companion and I discussed it afterward, by how still and focused everyone in the room (on and offstage) became as the piece played out. And I know I felt a kind of catharsis when it was done.

Let me close by thanking Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian, and Tom Wirtshafter, Tribes' producers, for bringing this work from the UK for us to experience and appreciate. Now go get your tickets.

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