British playwright Nina Raine’s Tribes asks us to consider the nature of language itself. Is it more than mere words, sounds, expression? This thought-provoking play about an incredibly dysfunctional (that’s putting it mildly) family wrestling with these same questions is an early highlight of the summer theater season. A cast of newcomers to La Jolla Playhouse under the direction of David Cromer brings a breathless intensity to Raine’s play, in which deaf son Billy (Russell Harvard) struggles to be heard in a manner most meaningful to him by parents (Jeff Still, Lee Roy Rogers) and two siblings (Thomas DellaMonica, Dina Thomas) in denial and afraid to change. Change is inevitable when Billy meets Sylvia (Meghan O’Neill), who is going deaf and who introduces him to sign language, the catalyst for not only Billy’s liberation from isolation but also the redefinition of his family life.
Tribes bravely takes on the controversy within the deaf community over sign language vs. “oralism,” while immersing theatergoers in a microcosmic world in which sound and silence are equally profound or frightening. Nowhere in the play is this more stirring than in the relationship between Billy and schizophrenic brother Daniel (DellaMonica), who hears voices in his head. The connection they forge at the end of Tribes punctuates a heart-rending evening, one where silences on stage and in the audience are unignorable.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.