FAMILY DYNAMICS Sylvia (Kate Finch, left) defends sign language to skeptical Christopher (Michael
Sean McGuinness) as Billy (Garrett Zuercher, left) and Beth (Elizabeth West, right) look on.
Photo by Aaron Flacke.
Though deaf from birth, Billy (Garrett Zuercher) has been raised by his hearing family as a man without a handicap. His parents were adamant that he neither learn to sign nor identify as “deaf,” and now he’s a bang-up lip-reader. But he becomes less sure about who he is, and to whom he belongs, when he falls for a woman who’s growing deaf, herself. The vicissitudes of identity and community are difficult negotiations in Nina Raine’s drama Tribes, dynamically directed by Christopher Grabowski for Portland Stage Company. This vivid, sometimes profanely comedic drama concerns not just the tribe of the deaf, but the tribal instincts of family itself, and the sentiments that can, no matter the language, be lost in translation.
The high-decibel dissonance of a tuning orchestra prefaces our first look at the rancorous dynamics of Billy’s intellectual British family: conversations are breakneck, combative, and usually shouted between his critic father Christopher (Michael Sean McGuinness), novelist mother Beth (Elizabeth West), would-be opera singer sister Ruth (Portland’s own fine comic actress Kat Moraros), and not-quite academic brother Dan (Matthew Stuart Jackson) — all of whom are living in one house. They stomp around their spacious kitchen (Rohit Kapoor’s elegant design) yelling epithets about circumcision, opera, porn, the critical worth of Ruth’s writer crush, and who is or isn’t a cunt or sucking cocks. As all this comes to a crescendo of voices, our focus shifts cinematically to Billy at the end of the table, reading, peacefully outside this defining verbal element of his family’s identity.
In contrast, Billy’s first meeting with Sylvia (Kate Finch), in the chic anteroom of a deaf community event reception, is quiet, sensitive, and simpatico. Their chemistry is immediate in the hands of Zuercher and Finch, who navigate with wit and sympathy as they communicate in a mix of signing, Billy’s indistinct, consonant-stricken speech, and outright silences. Though sarcastic like his family, Sylvia is — has to be, on account of her deafness — more watchful, and understands Billy in a way his relatives cannot. But family difficulties ensue. Chris is adamantly against signing, and Dan, recently dumped, is at once jealous of his brother’s romantic happiness and protective, lest Billy be taken from their family and its ways. Thus, Billy comes to rethink his own role in the tribe that raised him.
That family’s bellicose ways are drawn big, but they ring true. Moraros and Jackson, both a delight in their snarky sibling comedy, also convincingly convey the complicated blend of love, competition and possessiveness that consumes them as siblings. Jackson’s haunted Dan is especially hamstrung by the complex impulse at once to define and be defined by his brother.
Finch’s clarion, kind Sylvia provides a striking catalyst for Billy and his family, and her physical grace offers a contrast both to their histrionics and to what they think they know about language. When Chris baits Sylvia about the linguistic inferiority of signing, she is challenged into some remarkable signings of idiomatic profanities, and then, at Dan’s behest, a breathtaking translation of a poem.