Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ACT Theatre's "Tribes" explores deaf culture

Joshua Castille and Lindsay W. Evans in Tribes (photo by Chris Bennion)
ACT Theatre
Through March 26, 2017

Deaf culture gets a hearing (oh, oof) in ACT Theatre’s newest play, Tribes, by Nina Raine. The production is a solid one, with all six actors taking strong positions as well-constructed characters with vivid points of view.

Directed in the round by John Langs, a busy but effective homey set by Shawn Ketchum Johnson greets the audience as the home of Christopher and Beth (Frank Corrado and Anne Allgood) who still live with their three adult children, Daniel, Ruth, and Billy (Adam Standley, Kjerstine Rose Anderson, and Joshua Castille).

It’s not terribly clear why these adults live with their parents, but they seem to all accept it as normal. The family loves to argue fiercely, led by Christopher and his harsh statements that provoke emotional responses. Corrado does a vigorous job of portraying the father that you love to hate. Allgood’s long-suffering, exasperated Beth generally plays referee as the “children” still squabble.

Daniel is straining to finish a PhD and Ruth is trying to become an opera singer. Standley has to manage a complicated arc for a very emotional character who is portrayed as being damaged by his father’s vitriol and a recent break-up with an important girlfriend. Anderson does a good clueless younger sister who is trying to figure out who she is.

The one member who doesn’t argue is Billy. He doesn’t get to participate in the swirling words because he is deaf and no one helps him keep up with what is happening. In fact, none of them even look like they try to, and when he tries to catch the conversation and ask what is happening, he is met with “nothing” more often than not. No one signs.

It turns out that this is a conscious “choice” for this family, made in order to somehow force Billy to be able to integrate into the hearing world. And Billy is a great lip reader. But the greatest lip reader can’t read when someone’s back is turned to him.

We finally are allowed to get to know Billy when he meets Sylvia (Lindsay W. Evans) at a party. It turns out that it’s a “deaf” party and he doesn’t know how to sign and is leaving in a bit of disgust at how out of place he feels. Sylvia, too, is leaving, since her boyfriend has apparently pissed her off. Evans gets to take the air out of the argumentative family and bring a leavening perspective. She is very charming as Sylvia.

It takes Sylvia a bit to understand that Billy is deaf but doesn’t sign. Sylvia is hearing, but has a degenerative condition that will cause her to lose her hearing entirely very soon, and has grown up with deaf parents and signing her whole life. She’s got a diametrically opposite experience to Billy’s.

Outside his family, Billy is also charming and sexy and articulate. Castille is a very attractive actor who impresses with his clear diction and even a British accent. It’s fairly clear that Billy has adopted his family’s antipathy toward “deaf culture” as being less than where deaf people pretend to be as able as hearing people – when the family considers it a handicap.

A number of plays have this theme of deaf versus hearing, and a kind of educational component that deaf folk can have a culture and be proud of it and celebrate their difference. Azeotrope produced one recently, Sound, that also had this conflict at its core. For many hearing folk, it’s an … ear-opening experience.

However, this script leaves an awful lot unexplained or underdeveloped. The family antipathy doesn’t seem to come from a particular experience or incident, it just “is”. The parents are very educated, but having a deaf child did not apparently provoke them into exploring what the options were when their baby was born. Would a caring, loving, upper middle class family just decide they dislike “deaf culture” without exploring it, and that’s it?

There is a symbiotic relationship at stake between Daniel and Billy that also is unexplored but present. It takes on increasing urgency as the play continues. Again, a potent possibility for the script to explore and where it stays silent.

The production and the cast are great. There are times when subtitles are used when signing, so not much is missed. ACT Theatre finished installing its new Figaro Closed Captioning System to enhance the hard-of-hearing experience for audience members in time for this production. So, the theater also upped its game, here.

Raine created some great characters and solid dialogue. She somehow didn’t finish fleshing out the world, though. There are realizations unrecognized and stakes not described. By the end, you may wish another 10 or 15 minutes had been added for depth and understanding.

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