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article imageReview: Nina Raine's drama about deafness, 'Tribes', debuts in Toronto Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Feb 8, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Winner of a few major 2012 awards in both London and New York, Nina Raine's play “Tribes” is a powerful examination of communication issues between the deaf and the hearing. Too bad that Canadian Stage's new production doesn't always get it right.
Not that it isn't worth seeing. British playwright Raine's story, about a deaf young man who discovers a whole new world when he joins a social circle of other hearing-impaired people, is not only poignant and well-written – it's also educational, and without being preachy. Its sincere empathy for its main character, Billy, who's deaf from birth (actor Stephen Drabicki is hard-of-hearing in real life), gives you a unique perspective on the frustrations and conflicts that come with being deaf in a hearing-dependent society, and it doesn't detract from the good (if often misguided) intentions of the hearing side.
But CanStage's rendition – the play's Canadian premiere, which opened at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre on Thursday night – has a degree of inconsistent pacing and mixed performances that makes you wish you were seeing the original Royal Court or Off-Broadway production instead. The second act seems more polished and together than the first, and there's an odd lack of chemistry between the actors at times. You sense that something's missing.
Tribes introduces Billy as the quiet member of an overbearing and somewhat dysfunctional family: father Christopher (Joseph Ziegler), a gruff critic; well-meaning mother Beth (Nancy Palk), a writer; psychologically unstable brother Dan (Dylan Trowbridge), who hears voices when off his meds; and sister Ruth (Patricia Fagan), an unemployed wannabe opera singer. “Abusive love's all that's on offer here,” Dan says at one point, referring to the family's constant arguing and swearing at each other.
Under Christopher's lead, Billy's family has never learned sign language or allowed him to learn it, having convinced themselves that this would help him feel less alienated; Billy instead relies on an astonishing lip-reading talent, as well as his voice, to communicate with them, albeit imperfectly. But things change almost immediately when he meets Sylvia (Holly Lewis) at a nightclub and falls for her. Sylvia is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), having been raised by deaf parents, and her own hearing is fading rapidly as well. She teaches him ASL, introduces him to more deaf people, helps him get a job that makes use of his lip-reading ability and takes him seriously in a way that his family never has. This drives a wedge between Billy and his family, illustrating the difficult gaps between the deaf community and the hearing one – the metaphorical “tribes” of the title.
It's a terrific, layered script by Raine, who happens to be the grand-niece of Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak. But the cast misses many of the natural rhythms of Raine's dialogue, and director Daryl Cloran takes a while to find a proper pace and tone. Many potentially funny lines in the first act are poorly timed and wasted, and you rarely get the sense that these people are directly related.
Part of the problem is that Cloran hasn't made up his mind what accent these characters should have. Lewis sounds British, Palk has some vague British lilts in her voice, and others randomly swerve between their natural Canuck accents and some unaccountable mid-Atlantic mix. It's jarring and phony to hear Britishisms like “telly”, “bloody hell” and a frequent use of the c-word being spoken in Canadianese; it's also ironic that a staging of this play about deafness and sound would be so tone-deaf about speech. (Perhaps a bigger budget could have made room for a dialect coach?)
Drabicki is strong as Billy, convincing as he transforms from a bit of a wallflower to a confident young man who knows what he wants; the second-act scene in which he finally stands up to his obnoxious family (in ASL, with Lewis as the interpreter) brings an intense energy to the play, a passion missing in the first act. Lewis also delivers, capturing Sylvia's awkward discomfort as the barrier separating Billy from his family and her frustration with her communication breakdowns with both sides.
Palk, so good in so many past Soulpepper productions, is fine as Beth, but the rest of the cast disappoints on one level or another. Ziegler is one-note and overly detached as Christopher, muting the potential of what should be the play's most amusing and combative character. Fagan seems to be barely even there most of the time, and while Trowbridge's energy is commendable and worth noting, he isn't always believable as his sick, disturbed young character.
Still, this production does have interesting visual and aural moments. Set and lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini helps you understand Billy and Sylvia's ASL interactions by projecting subtitles on the walls of his translucent living-room set; it not only explains what they're saying, but also helps to bring you into their separate world. And snatches from familiar classical compositions, like Mozart's The Magic Flute overture and Debussy's “Clair de Lune”, appropriately remind you of the musical magic that Billy could never understand but that his opera-loving family members (and we) cluelessly take for granted.
Again, Tribes is a wonderful play that loses some of its potential power in Cloran's flawed staging. It brings up a lot of perspectives about deafness that most of us never would have considered: the different grammatical structure of ASL; how difficult it can be to communicate irony and sarcasm; that deaf people might have a community as hierarchical as any society might be; and, as Sylvia points out about non-deaf people struggling to communicate with her, “how obvious it is on their faces when they don't like you.” Communication is a theme that Raine explores very strongly; I'm not entirely sure Cloran will communicate that properly to all audiences, though.
Tribes runs at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre until March 2. The Deaf Culture Centre is holding a workshop and guided tour of its exhibits of deaf artists' work before the February 12, 19 and 26 matinees.
More about Theatre, canadian stage, canstage, deafness, Hearing loss
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