Bob Goepfert Reviews Barrington Stage's Production Of "Tribes"

Aug 30, 2016

PITTSFIELD, MA. - “Tribes” is a powerful, thought-provoking drama about the sense of belonging, the need to communicate and the frustration that can accompany a moment of self-discovery.

To be clear, the play that is playing at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield through September 3, is an exciting but far from comfortable play.  It features two people with disabilities linked to a family that defines dysfunction.  It is as painful as it is enlightening and the intensity of the performances will wear you out. 

However, “Tribes” is a rewarding theatrical experience that is given a superb production by Barrington Stage.  It’s about self-discovery, truth and the pain that comes when we realize we are sometimes a person we don’t want to be.

“Tribes” revolves about a deaf man.   Billy is in his twenties and has been born into an extroverted, intellectually creative family who take great pride in their ability to think and communicate.   Billy has learned to read lips and his mother spent hours teaching him how to speak.  However they believe he should not learn to sign because it would be giving him an identity as a deaf person that would somehow lessen his individuality.

The family does not know the difference between a crutch and a tool.  Neither do they know when demanding a person defend their beliefs and principles turns into an Inquisition rather than an interview – or in this case a family dinner to meet a new girlfriend.  Tellingly, the family that honors language as a form of communication is prone to crudity in word play and with metaphor. 

Sylvia was born of deaf parents and is fluent in sign.  She is losing her hearing and will soon be deaf.  When she meets and becomes romantically involved with Billy she opens him to a culture who shares his need to communicate in a silent world.  He has become part of a larger tribe, which threatens his relationship with the tribe he calls family.

Billy and Sylvia’s relationship is the heart of the play.  Joshua Castille is a tender Billy who grows as a person when he finds a world in which he fits.  Though his climatic speech in which he berates his family is perhaps a little harsh, he is a loveable innocent throughout the show.

Eli Pauley as Sylvia is the essence of this production.  Through her we feel the pain of loss as she finds herself leaving the hearing world to become trapped by a wall of silence.  How she copes with her approaching dilemma illuminates the isolation of the other members of the family who are trapped by disabilities of their own making.

Billy’s family lives to talk, argue and debate.  They are the type of people who give intelligence a bad name by their smug, self-satisfied behavior that is intent on showing that each of them is always the smartest person in the room.  Because they are consumed by their egos they become caricatures of themselves.

The father Christopher (C. David Johnson) is an opinionated man who uses truth as a weapon.  However, his most content moments are spend alone transcribing with a headset that shuts out the world.  The eldest son Daniel (Miles G. Jackson) has returned home to write his thesis titled “Language doesn’t determine meaning.”  He’s an arrogant but fragile man whose personality is dominated by the voices in his head.  The sister Ruth (Justine Salata) is an aspiring opera singer who knows she has limited talent and is desperate for the love of a man.

The closest to normal person in the family is the mother Beth, who is writing “a marriage-breakdown detective novel.”  Played by Deirdre Madigan, she is the peacemaker who tries desperately to love her troubled family.

It’s a play that almost succeeds in being profound.  It falls short because it has so much to say.  Even though it’s often funny, it can be exhausting and like the family members it tries to say too much.   The second act introduces conflict that seems manufactured and the need for a positive feel at the end of the play rings false and contrived.  

Nonetheless, “Tribes” is a fascinating piece of theater that is brilliantly acted by a talented cast and superbly directed by Jenn Thompson.   It’s not only a play that you will long remember, but it is a play that will have new revelations every time you see it.   It’s truly a special experience.

“Tribes” at Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass.  Through Saturday Sept. 3

413-236-8888, barringtonstageco.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record

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