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THEATER REVIEW: La Jolla Playhouse’s “Tribes”

Feeling alienated is almost a rite of passage for teens, but try to imagine what it’s like growing up deaf in a hearing family – especially the family introduced by British playwright Nina Raine in “Tribes.”

This is a voluble group who use language more as weapon than means of communication. It’s everyone for himself, with everybody talking and nobody listening.

Billy (Russell Harvard), deaf from birth, can’t compete or even join in with ever-bickering writer-parents Christopher (Jeff Still) and Beth (Lee Roy Rogers), nor with wannabe opera singer sister Ruth (Dina Thomas), no verbal shrinking violet herself.

The only family member Billy seems to have any closeness with is schizophrenic older brother Daniel (Thomas DellaMonica), recently returned home after release from a mental hospital, who is fighting his own demons – the voices in his head – while attempting to write a dissertation about “how language doesn’t determine meaning.”

Billy has never learned sign language (his father didn’t want him to feel like “a minority”), so he’s been forced to perfect lip-reading in order to extract meaning from the never-ending family gabfest.

But no one in this family makes any effort to include Billy in the shouting and overtalking that characterizes their communication style, which quickly becomes exhausting, annoying and frankly distracting from what I assume to be Raine’s intent. Greatly relieved at the end of the first act, when everyone else had clattered out of the dining room and left Billy sitting alone in welcome silence, I found myself thinking Billy should bless his deafness.

Another thread is reflected in the play’s title: membership in a community. Whom do you identify with?

When Billy meets Sylvia (Meghan O’Neill), born hearing but terrified that she’s now going deaf, his world opens, his “tribe” may change, and his relationship with the family must be altered.

Raine explores issues in the deaf community, such as its insularity and hierarchical nature and the sign language vs. “oralism” debate. But mostly she examines the meaning of community and belonging to a group.

This family illustrates another of Raine’s topics – disability, be it emotional, psychological or physical. This family has it all.

Russell’s Billy anchors the cast with the same splendid performance I saw in the off-Broadway production. The others are new to me, but aside from meandering accents, the pervasive dysfunction of everyone in this family comes through loud and clear. And the touching relationship between Billy and Daniel is a definite plus.

But I can’t help thinking a rewrite would make this a stronger play. The decision to make this family such an extreme example of both dysfunction and boorish behavior seems to distract from the point. So do some fussy plot points brought up in the second act that might be best left out.

The details

“Tribes” plays through July 21 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, on the UCSD campus.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.