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updated: 12/20/2013 8:04 AM

Communication at issue in Steppenwolf's 'Tribes'

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  • John McGinty, foreground, plays Billy, a deaf young man whose recent immersion in the Deaf community causes a schism in his family and distresses older brother Daniel (Steve Haggard), background, in Nina Raine's "Tribes," running through Feb. 9 at Steppenwolf Theatre.

      John McGinty, foreground, plays Billy, a deaf young man whose recent immersion in the Deaf community causes a schism in his family and distresses older brother Daniel (Steve Haggard), background, in Nina Raine's "Tribes," running through Feb. 9 at Steppenwolf Theatre.
    Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Sylvia (Alana Arenas), a young woman who is losing her hearing, teaches Billy (John McGinty) to sign in Steppenwolf Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of "Tribes," by British playwright Nina Raine.

      Sylvia (Alana Arenas), a young woman who is losing her hearing, teaches Billy (John McGinty) to sign in Steppenwolf Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of "Tribes," by British playwright Nina Raine.
    Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Billy (John McGinty), right, confronts his father Christopher (Francis Guinan), left, about the family's failure to accommodate him by learning to sign in Steppenwolf Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of Nina Raine's "Tribes."

      Billy (John McGinty), right, confronts his father Christopher (Francis Guinan), left, about the family's failure to accommodate him by learning to sign in Steppenwolf Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of Nina Raine's "Tribes."
    Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 

If the garrulous family members in Nina Raine's "Tribes," in its Chicago-area premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, seem familiar, it's because they are. Well-educated and hyper-articulate, Raine's characters -- members of an upper-middle-class family living in present-day England -- are those chatty, self-absorbed types who dominate stage and screen.

They banter, tease, bicker, argue, insult and console. But for all their talking -- and there is plenty in this wry, intelligent examination of community, conformity and identity -- Raine's sharp-edged characters don't communicate well. Not with words, anyway.

As it turns out, actions do speak louder, evidenced by simple yet telling expressions of affection late in the play. These suggest that, as dysfunctional and vexing as they are, the members of this tribe are motivated by love, however ineptly they express it.

We meet them over a noisy dinner (where the conversation careens from rotten nuts to romantic partners) in their comfortable, cluttered home (courtesy of set designer Walt Spangler).

Patriarch Christopher (Francis Guinan, terrific as an aggressive nonconformist) is a retired teacher who never fails to express a negative opinion. His wife, Beth (Molly Regan), is a would-be mystery writer. Living with them are their twentysomething children. Troubled Daniel (Steve Haggard in a fearless, gut-wrenching performance) is struggling to write his dissertation while coping with a breakup. Ruth (Helen Sadler) is an aspiring opera singer unsure of her talent. Billy (the wonderfully expressive John McGinty) is deaf and so very alone, even when his family surrounds him.

The family dynamic shifts when Billy -- who speaks and reads lips but has never learned sign language -- meets Sylvia (Alana Arenas), a child of deaf parents who is slowly losing her hearing. Sylvia introduces Billy to sign language and the Deaf community, a new tribe whose members speak his language, unlike his family who, as Billy points out, never bothered to learn it.

Therein rests the play's fundamental conflict: assimilation vs. exclusion. To what extent should a deaf person conform to the hearing world? To what extent should hearing family members accommodate the deaf person? There's also the question of whether a disability informs one's identity and the issue of the limits of language -- spoken or sign -- to fully convey meaning.

These are hefty, complex issues and Raine articulates them in a reasoned, balanced way. Case in point: Christopher's decision that Billy would read lips and not use sign language. It's easy to condemn, until Christopher explains he didn't want his son defined by a disability.

Raine's writing is strong. The parallels she draws between Billy finding his voice and Daniel losing his are especially resonant. That said, not everything works. The revelation about one of the characters that occurs in the second act felt like an unnecessary distraction. But it's a minor glitch in a production directed with care by Austin Pendleton, who elicits keenly honed performances from a fine cast.

That cast is led by McGinty, a deaf actor who played Billy recently in a production of "Tribes" at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. While he does a fine job conveying Billy's newly acquired passion for Deaf culture, it's those quiet moments, when we see Billy's isolation reflected in his face -- as in the moving conclusion to Act One -- where McGinty truly excels.

Also deserving mention is Josh Schmidt, whose sound design highlights the dissonance and distractions that bedevil this tribe.

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