Monday, September 16, 2013

SpeakEasy Stage Company Presents "Tribes" by Nina Raine - A Tour de Force Examination of the Art of Communication

Author and marketing guru, Seth Godin, has published a book entitled "Tribes," in which he examines mankind's innate need for us to organize ourselves in affiliate groups with whom we can identify and "hang out."  His focus is on  the business applications of this phenomenon.  In her play of the same title, Nina Raine expands the canvas and paints word pictures of how the need to affiliate in tribes impacts every aspect of life.  The writing is of the highest order - on a par with the writing of Bruce Norris in "Clybourne Park" and of Tracy Letts in "August Osage County." The playwright is the grand niece of Russian novelist Boris Pasternak.  The familial proclivity to create memorable characters and to use words with the precision of a scalpel or the brute force of a sledge hammer is in evidence from the opening salvos thrown back and forth by the members of a family that could well be named The Dysfunctionals!

Anchored by the patriarch, Christopher, this small tribe of beloved enemies find ever more cruel and creative ways to put down one another with merciless verbal assaults, innuendos and benign neglect.  Young adult children Daniel and Ruth have moved back home after having failed in their respective attempts to fly from the nest.  They drag themselves back to the "devil they know" and place themselves directly in the cross hairs of their father's incessant attacks on their careers and on their persons.  The family is rounded out by the long-suffering mother, Beth, who late in life aspires to a career as a novelist.  She is writing a murder mystery about a failed marriage!  Finally, there is Billy, the youngest son who was born deaf and whom the family has raised to lip read - but not to sign.  Christopher has been a professor who has turned writer, opining in dense language about semiotics and language, all the while being patently incapable of communicating in anything other that verbal attack mode.

The play is as much about theme as it is about plot.  The themes and meta-themes that Ms. Raine explores cut to the very heart of the human condition.
  • What is the nature of communication?  What are its obstacles, barriers, limitations?
  • What does it mean to affiliate with a tribe - a family, the "Deaf Community," the world of intellectuals, those who are not "Northerners"?
  • The tendency within each individual tribe to create hierarchies and pecking orders
  • What does it mean to be born deaf?  What does it mean to become deaf?
  • What are the qualitative differences and relational  and emotional implications of spoken communication vs. sign language?
  • To what degree is music a form of communication and emotional connection?
  • Is missing someone the same as loving  that person?
These  themes are explored in the myriad combinations of interactions that take place within the family, and between family members and Sylvia, Billy's girl friend.   As the child of deaf parents, she grew up learning sign language.  Now, she herself is gradually going deaf, and these factors lead to complications in her life and in her roller coaster relationship with Billy.  After years of assimilating into the hearing world as best he can, Billy meets Sylvia and their relationship helps him to see his family in a new light  He challenges his hearing family to communicate with him on his own terms. The scene in which he confronts them is the emotional heart of the play.

SpeakEasy Stage continues to attract creative talent of the highest order.  The set, designed by Christina Todesco is a sumptuous evocation of the family home.  It is set in the middle of the audience in a "theatre in the round" - or, more accurately, "theatre in the square" - configuration.  The effect is that the audience feels as if it is sitting at ringside at a tag team wrestling or boxing match.  Director M. Bevin O'Gara has blocked the action brilliantly, so that each quadrant of the audience has a chance to be near each of the characters at some point during the two act play's action.

Each character is beautifully drawn and skillfully played.  Here are the dramatis personae:
  • Daniel, played by Nael Nacer, is the oldest son who is devolving into a stuttering, stammering psychotic.  The incessant voices in his head speak more loudly and clearly than any of the family members in their attempts to communicate with him.  Billy's newly expressed independence disrupts a cycle of co-dependency that sends Daniel spinning out of control.
  • Beth is the mother who means well and is trying establish an identity for herself while preserving the integrity of her home and family.  Like the mother in "Glass Menagerie,"  her efforts to protect her fragile progeny prove to be less than successful.  Adrianne Krstansky is perfectly cast, setting the right tone whether clothed reluctantly in a garish kimono, running through the house in her under garments or standing at an ironing board symbolically trying to smooth out the wrinkles of her emotionally disheveled family.
  • Christopher, the misanthropic and verbally abusive father whose love-hate relationships within the family are matched only by his vitriol for all of those outside the family tribal boundaries.  He uses language - not as a means to communicate, but as a weapon and as a defense, erecting a verbal and intellectual barbed wire fence that snags anyone with the cheek to try to insinuate herself into the family.  Patrick Shea is chilling in his portrayal of cruelty, hubris and total emotional tone deafness.
  • Ruth is the daughter whose attempt at a career as an opera singer never hits a high note.  Kathryn Myles is wonderfully woeful as a young woman stepping gingerly to find her place in the world and in the minefield of her family.
  • James Caverly plays Billy.  Caverly is a deaf actor who brings a poignancy and genuineness to this role that cannot be too highly praised.  His performance is the glue that holds the action together, and which holds the audience in his hands.  His progression from sheltered hot house plant to an individual able to stand on his own is a powerful portrayal.
  • Erica Spyres plays Sylvia beautifully as the catalyst and mirror that allows Billy to see himself in relationship to two tribes - his family and the Deaf Community.  Her use of sign language draws the audience in.  Her struggle to deal with her approaching deafness is a poignant note that echoes throughout the play.
Projections designed by Garrett Herzig, Sound designed by Arshan Gailus and Lighting designed by Annie Wiegand all serve to enhance the exploration of the themes outlined above.

The final scenes from each of the two acts are deeply moving.  Act I fades out with Sylvia at the family's baby grand piano playing Debussy's Clair de Lune.  The denouement of Act II has Daniel and Billy confronting one another.  All other forms of communication having failed miserably, the two of them resort to the most primal of communications means - human  touch - to bridge the chasm that has opened up between them.

This award-winning play deserves a large and enthusiastic Boston audience.  I encourage you to come along with members of whatever tribes you affiliate with.  You will find much to discuss among yourselves as you leave the theater challenged and changed.

The play runs at the Boston Center for the Arts through October 12.

SpeakEasy Stage Website



1 comment:

Aditya said...

Fantastic review! It was truly a moving and engrossing performance.