In British playwright Nina Raine’s comedy-drama, we are introduced jarringly to a dysfunctional family that has raised a hearing-impaired son. Sis and the two brothers live at home, although it’s clear they should by now be on their own.
The scene opens in the family’s open-concept home with a barrage of lines, yelled more than spoken, and laden with obscenities. F— you, f— that. This one is a c—. It gets more abrasive as the play develops.
Pop is a blowhard intellectual, aggressive, critical and dogmatic. We soon learn that Billy—the Deaf son sitting in the middle of the torrent of “voices”—is aware of none of it till they turn to face him so he can read their lips.
The family has never allowed him to learn sign language, preferring to “integrate” him into “normal” life. But this family is anything but normal. Brother Daniel is clearly unbalanced emotionally although his diagnosis is unclear. He hears voices (an interesting twist on the idea) and clearly needs Billy to stay at home and be his bro. Then there’s sis, who’s finding her voice as an opera singer although we never hear her sing. She does temper tantrums really well, though, lying on the floor screaming about the fact that she has no boyfriend. She has a permanent expression of distaste, all the while seeming to love her family.
The mom is busy writing a book and having her erudite husband (they are both 60) criticize her writing while telling each other to f— off as they try to deal with the circumstances of their three grown children. The only one they see as handicapped is Billy. Mom is proud of having taught Billy to “speak.”
Like Billy, actor Jack Volpe was born deaf and brought up in a hearing family. Although he (unlike Billy) learned sign language from a very early age, this expressive way of communicating with his family was closed to him for much of his upbringing.
Billy seems oblivious to the fact that his parents, while teaching him to “speak” have deprived him of what hearing-impaired people consider their first language — sign.
It’s not until he meets Sylvia and falls in love with her that he learns to sign and his world opens up in ways he never imagined.
He confronts his family in a dramatic scene where they can only understand his signing through Sylvia, who was born to Deaf parents and is losing her hearing.
Act I is difficult to follow. We are challenged to understand why this family spend all their time yelling and not really saying much in the bargain. It’s also difficult to understand everything Billy is saying and only some of his lines are projected on the flimsy draperies that make up the backdrop of the stage.
In Act II, these draperies become windows and the words become clearer as does our insight into Billy’s and Sylvia’s words.
The questions the play asks us to consider are eye-openers, ear-openers, heart-openers, and mind-openers: How do we express ourselves with our voices? How do the Deaf see voices? Can sign language be more poetic than spoken language? Should the hearing-impaired be expected to integrate into hearing people’s way of communicating? And if they don’t, are they limiting their world to communicating to the Deaf? Sylvia tells Billy she’s slowly forgetting how her voice sounds; she’s worried she sounds flat; and she doesn’t want to limit herself to being with Deaf people only. For Billy it’s a different problem. Now that he’s found his voice in signing, how does he reconcile with a family who won’t or can’t “listen” to him?
The acting in Tribes is flawless. Some might say the family is overacting, but in a way, that’s what they’re programmed to do. They act as though Billy will understand them if they shout loud enough.
This is a play not to be missed by the hearing or hearing-impaired. It plunges us into a world few of us have experienced and allows us to look at our speaking communication with all its flaws and intricacies.
As the actors came out to take their bows, a interpreter stepped out onto the stage to sign to Volpe, who was clapping by shaking his hands in the air. Soon much of the audience was “clapping” in the same way, and suddenly I felt part of an audience that was starting to get it, starting to open their minds and hearts to what it means to be deaf.
Tribes runs till December 20 at the Segal Centre, 5170 Côte Ste. Catherine. 514-739-7944 segalcentre.org