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Tribes

Communication problems are a dramatic staple, but in Nina Raine's Tribes, they are compounded by deafness and hearing loss, as well as conflicting peer groups and hierarchies.

Kathleen McCall as Beth and Stephen Paul Johnson as Christopher
Kathleen McCall as Beth and
Stephen Paul Johnson as Christopher
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
Billy (Tad Cooley) was born deaf into a competitive family dominated by his father, Christopher (Stephen Paul Johnson), an academic critic. His mother, Beth (Kathleen McCall) is attempting to write a "marriage-breakdown detective novel." His brother, Daniel (Andrew Pastides) is working on his thesis, about how "language doesn’t determine meaning," and his sister, Ruth (Isabel Ellison) is trying to become an opera singer. Almost nothing can be discussed among them without criticism from one party or another.

Kate Finch as Sylvia and Tad Cooley as Billy
Kate Finch as Sylvia
and Tad Cooley as Billy
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
Amidst this intellectual and emotional battleground, Billy was raised as a lip-reader, based on Christopher's adamant belief that this would make Billy part of "normal" society, rather than being set apart by his impairment. Then, Billy meets Sylvia (Kate Finch), who is losing her hearing after being raised by two deaf parents. Billy's perspective on deafness is radically altered, as Sylvia teaches him sign language and introduces him to the deaf community.

In addition to serving as an insightful examination of the specific challenges facing the deaf, the universality of Raine's script is evidenced by the parallels it reveals to other, more common, communications issues. For example, when Billy revolts against his family, it appears to follow a pattern much like most young adults separating themselves from their parents to establish their independence. Additionally, while Billy's deafness presents a lifelong communication challenge, its mediation within his family, is, like other familial reconcilations, still dependent on the underlying love shared between those involved, as we see in the denouement of this piece.

Tad Cooley as Billy
Tad Cooley as Billy
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
Cooley anchors Billy with strong physical and emotional presence that steadies him through the turbulent psychological seas of family gamemanship and vagaries of his first love affair. Cooley's own hearing issues lend verisimilatude to his dialect and general reactions. We feel Billy's frustration at others' presumptions that his intellect and self worth is somehow restricted by one particular sense impairment.

Stephen Paul Johnson as Christopher
Stephen Paul Johnson as Christopher
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
As strong as each family member's sense of entitlement may be, the overridding value system emmanates from Christopher. Johnson does yeoman's work making opinionated declarations the modus operandi of familial interactions. As the wife and mother, McCall's Beth holds up a fun house mirror to Christopher, in a sense mocking his Il Dottore commedia send up while attempting to instill some sense of family.

Kathleen McCall as Beth
Kathleen McCall as Beth
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
Both of Billy's siblings, Ruth and Daniel, have been heavily imprinted by this parental high-wire act and suffer thereby, most definitively with a lack of self-confidence. Ellison draws much humor with a low-key, hapless approach, while Pastides works us from the other extreme, that of pathos and pity.

Finally, Sylvia enters, and Billy's family's interdependencies turn tenuous. If there is anyone we can turn to for an empathetic lens through which to experience her loss of hearing, it is Beethoven, as we are reminded by the musical interludes during a number of segues. What the great composer conveys to us (e.g., the 9th Symphony) is that despite his loss of hearing, he still heard all the notes in his head. This is Sylvia's challenge, because she knows what she's missing. All this while Billy is in the honeymoon phase of discovery a community similarly challenged, before the group judgments and hierarchies begin to surface.

Isabel Ellison as Ruth
Isabel Ellison as Ruth
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
Finch's strong choices create an independent measure of empowerment for everyone, even as she captures Sylvia's withering struggles with her shrinking sensory life.

A lot has been written comparing Tribes to other famous plays in which familial dysfunction plays a major role, for example, Death of a Salesman, Long Day's Journey into Night, and August: Osage County, but this misses the point. A major percentage of plays are about families because in order for theatre to fulfill its charge, it must produce catharsis, either through tragedy or comedy (and their variants), and this can only be accomplished by having the audience identify with characters. If writers write what they know, then odds are they are often going to write about characters based on those they know best.

Andrew Pastides as Daniel
Andrew Pastides as Daniel
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
But to say that Arthur Miller's penultimate American play is about family dysfunction glosses over the political implications of the script, something which Miller clearly intended, as he did in many of his other works, and which earned him a seat in front of Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. So, while familial dysfunction is a staple of drama, the root cause of this dysfunction varies with every story—egocentrism, substance abuse, societal forces, environmental factors, etc.—which is what makes every story unique. As we've seen with Shakespeare, classifying his plays becomes problematic as the playwrighting evolves from tragedies and comedies into romances. Is King Lear or Hamlet about family dysfunction? Well, yes, at some level, but that is hardly an adequate description.

Andrew Pastides as Daniel, Tad Cooley as B illy, and Kate Finch as Sylvia
Andrew Pastides as Daniel,
Tad Cooley as Billy,
and Kate Finch as Sylvia
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
In the case of Tribes, the familial dysfunction does not descend into destruction; it heals; however, the significant breakthrough here is a successful drama that revolves around the frank discussion of deafness.

The craft work in this production is impressive: Lisa Orzolek's beautifully detailed set and Charlie I. Miller's projections (which give voice to various thoughts) in particular.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of Tribes, directed by Stephen Weitz, runs through November 15th. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows



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