Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Sympathetic Tribes

With its production of Nina Raine's Tribes, Everyman Theatre ventures into one of the least explored terrains of diversity: the world of people with disabilites.  Raine's play concerns the family conflict swirling over a deaf son who after a life of quiet resignation suddenly becomes a militant member of the deaf sign-language community and denounces his family for the infantilization to which they have---lovingly and unknowingly---subjected him.  Directed by Vincent Lancisi, the handsome production brings out the emotional depth of the family conflict and the political fractures within the deaf community.

At the center of the production is John Mc Ginty's dazzling performance as Billy, the deaf son who finally declares independence as he conducts his first romance and is introduced to the broader deaf community with its divisions between those who prefer to sign (considering it their own native language) and those ---like Billy---who have long survived on lip-reading and learning how to speak audially.  Lancisi's direction is especially adroit at evoking the internal world of the deaf through the use of unusual lighting effects to suggest internal states of mind.  Daniel Conway's set design and Ja Herzog's lighting design masterfully externalize the shifting mental moods of the protagonist.

The limits of the production are the limits of the play.  In its study of the isolation and anger of the deaf, the script at times sounds like an after-school special.  There is more than a bit of whimpering self-pity clogging the action.  The closing scene, where Billy's brother assures him that love conquers all, packs an emotional wallop---audience members were audibly weeping---but it feels meretricious.

Tribes is a moving exploration of a world and an anguish unknown to most of us.  It is another fine example of the extraordinary ensemble work of which Everyman has been capable this season in its new home.

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