British playwright Nina Raine’s Tribes comes to Berkeley Repertory Theatre with a whole lot of buzz gathered from its 2010 premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre and its 2012 New York Drama Desk Award for outstanding play. And there’s a whole lot of buzz in the play as well, because it’s about language, deafness and the difficulty of distinguishing signal from noise.
Born deaf into a hearing family, Billy doesn’t know sign language, because his father didn’t want him stuck in a minority group. But it’s clear from the very beginning that he’s entirely isolated, as his family hollers and cusses at each other about various erudite topics while Billy sits silently eating, not even bothering to try to make sense of it, only occasionally asking what’s wrong or what someone is talking about. You can tell at a glance that he’s used to not being included. Played with deeply affecting, boyish earnestness by James Caverly, Billy has learned not to care what people are rattling on about, just how they’re doing underneath all the blather.
And they do carry on. Billy’s father Christopher (a sharp and sardonic Paul Whitworth, former artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz) is a retired professor with contrarian opinions on everything, which he proclaims with a condescending tone that borders on gleeful. He’s always squabbling with mother Beth (Anita Carey, last seen at Berkeley Rep in Pericles), an aspiring novelist who’s always writing about her screwed-up family.
All of their adult children are living at home again -- if you can really call them adults -- they behave like peevish grade schoolers. Daniel (played by a hyperactively combative Dan Clegg) is a failed grad student who hears berating voices in his head all the time, and Ruth (a mopey Elizabeth Morton) is a novice opera singer stuck in the cafe circuit. They’re all deeply competitive with each other; one gets the impression that, for all their showy erudition, none of them are particularly good at what they do. And they all love Billy because he doesn’t compete with anyone.
Everything changes when Billy meets an attractive young woman at a party. Sylvia was born hearing to deaf parents and speaks sign language fluently. Only now she’s losing her hearing and isn’t nearly as good at lip-reading as Billy is. As played by Nell Giesslinger, she’s captivatingly clever and charismatic, and the chemistry between the two of them is electric. Quick to find fault with people to begin with, Billy’s family is immediately threatened by him going out with someone so immersed in the deaf culture they’ve always tried to keep at a distance. The tension is high in nearly every scene of California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone’s dynamic staging, even if it is just people sitting around talking. Someone’s always on the spot, and the way the family crowds around Sylvia is suffocating, welcoming her and challenging her in the same breath.