Story: Beth and Christopher are an eccentric English couple. Christopher is a bit of a snob, a former professor as well as a writer and a self-centered egotist, while Beth is a bohemian with her own artistic impulses.
They’ve been married for about 30 years and have three adult children including Billy, who is deaf. The family never had Billy learn sign language, nor have they ever attempted to do anything to help his communication skills other than to urge him to read lips and ‘fight’ his way through his hearing challenges.
Billy may be the best adjusted of the kids, though. His brother Daniel is a perpetual college student, coming off a failed relationship with a young woman deemed inferior by his judgmental father. Daniel also has a history of stuttering and hearing voices in his head, which he avoids by smoking pot whenever he can.
Sister Ruth is an aspiring singer, but even she realizes that her voice isn’t up to harsh competition and professional standards. She also is the subject of endless humiliation by dear old dad.
One night, Billy by chance meets Sylvia at a party. She actually speaks sign language because her own parents are deaf. Additionally, like her older sister, Sylvia knows that her own hearing is waning rapidly because of a genetic condition. She tells Billy that while they both experience forms of deafness they nonetheless belong to different factions in the highly politicized deaf community.
Nevertheless, they strike up a romance, with Sylvia leaving her boyfriend for Billy. When he brings her home to meet his parents, Sylvia is in for a new wave of shocks to her system. Meanwhile, she encourages Billy to pursue a job as a court interpreter, and he seems to be pretty good at it.
Billy’s self-esteem is growing while the self-worth of his brother and sister are falling precipitously. The biggest challenge to the family, though, is yet to occur: Will Billy continue to accept his unorthodox background after Sylvia introduces him to a brand new world? And what will the consequences be?
Highlights: St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s second selection in its “Blood Is Thicker than Water” season 12 is a sizzling presentation of Nina Raine’s searing drama about a bruising family where impulses are acted out and thoughts of any kind are expressed with nary a concern for hurt feelings. Tribes is an extraordinary play brilliantly interpreted by director Annamaria Pileggi and her first-rate cast.
Other Info: Raine is an accomplished director and playwright whose pedigree includes being a grandniece of Russian novelist Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago). Tribes had its American premiere in New York in 2012 after its original production in London was commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre.
Patrick Huber’s set design depicts the family’s modest home, where nothing is notably pretentious except Christopher’s attitude. Jess Stamper’s props accentuate the well-worn and comfortable look of the living room, suitably illuminated by Huber’s lighting design. Megan Harshaw adds the contemporary attire of these middle-class folks and Jeff Roberts provides the carefully constructed sound design.
Tribes is an arresting drama from the get-go, with a title that hearkens back to humanity’s gritty and warring roots between different factions as opposed to the more familiar and reassuring notion of ‘family.’ Make no mistake, there is a war of words constantly at play in this household, although the mother Beth works faithfully to rein in her husband’s harsher impulses.
Huber’s video design aids immeasurably in providing on-screen dialogue when sign language is used. It also adds to the impact of one particularly stunning scene that has to be ‘seen’ to be truly experienced in its scary poignancy. Kudos also to Pileggi for her dialect coaching of these British characters.
Pileggi guides her players expertly through the twists and turns in Raine’s absorbing story and is rewarded with stellar performances. Miles Barbee, a deaf actor who has performed on Broadway and elsewhere, makes Billy both believable and accessible, underscoring the character’s resiliency as well as his late-blooming individual growth.
There also are excellent performances by the rest of the cast, including Bridgette Bassa as the open and agreeable Sylvia, all too aware of her own physical challenges while reaching out to make Billy’s world a more inclusive one. A second-act scene between Sylvia and Billy is highly affecting, superbly rendered by both Barbee and Bassa.
Elizabeth Townsend brings warmth and a steely resolve to the peacemaker role of Beth, while Greg Johnston suitably captures Christopher’s loutish and abrasive persona. Ryan Lawson-Maeske excels as the stifled Daniel, accentuated with a convincing depiction of Daniel’s alarming descent into his own chaos. As Ruth, Hailey Medrano succeeds in showing the fragile daughter’s misery and unhappiness amidst this unorthodox and frequently savage family unit.
Tribes is one of the best shows of the year, superior both in its writing and in this St. Louis Actors’ Studio rendition. Family may come first but at what a price.
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: December 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 16
Tickets: $30-$35; contact 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Patrick Huber