Nina Raine’s award-winning play Tribes is overtly — and creatively — about people living with deafness. But it’s also a story of families and the human need to connect. It sheds interesting light on how people cope variously with a deficit of hearing, but it’s also about how even those who are not deaf struggle and often fail to communicate in a caring and meaningful way.
Beth (Amy Warner) and Christopher (Barry Mulholland) are free spirits, quick to express outlandish opinions, argue loudly and challenge anyone who disagrees. Two of their adult children are obvious products of this worldview: Daniel (Ryan Wesley Gilreath) is intellectual and cynical, but barely balanced emotionally; Ruth (Jen Joplin) fancies herself an opera singer, but she’s unaware of her shortcomings. The youngest, Billy (Dale Dymkoski), is deaf, alone and lost in the midst of his boisterous family. Then he meets Sylvia (Kelly Mengelkoch).
Billy’s family has taught him to speak and lip read; Sylvia, raised by deaf parents, is expressively adept at sign language. They’re members of two different “tribes,” with their own culture and mores — and often with attitudes that are disdainful and mutually exclusive. To complicate matters, Sylvia is slowly losing her own hearing and terrified of the future. But she and Billy find common ground and mutual support.
Their strong bond, however, threatens the volcanic chemistry of Billy’s family. As he begins to pull away from them toward a relationship with Sylvia, his unstable older brother, who has depended on Billy’s emotional support, spins out of control, and the family’s coarse fabric begins to shred. How these conflicts are negotiated is fascinatingly portrayed, using clever dialogue, sonic cues (especially music) and multiple languages. Many of Billy and Sylvia’s signed conversations (which his family does not understand) are translated with supertitles. While everyone in Tribes yearns to connect, only those facing the greatest challenges succeed.
Dymkoski and Mengelkoch portray their characters with sensitivity, subtlety and surprising eloquence. Warner’s dotty mother and Mulholland’s obstreperous father move beyond caricatures; Joplin’s awkward, jealous Ruth struggles to fit in; and Gilreath’s insightful but tortured Daniel descends from haughty and judgmental to needy and obsessed, grasping for stability. Under Michael Evan Haney’s firm, clear direction, Tribes is a moving master class in family dynamics.
TRIBES, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through Feb. 22. Many performances utilize ASL interpreters.