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"Tribes" at Everyman Theatre

Stan Barouh.

The struggle to be understood through sign, and through sound. Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see "Tribes" at Everyman Theatre

The Rousuck Review: "Tribes" at Everyman Theatre. 

Nina Raine’s play, “Tribes,” focuses on two tribes – the first is family; the second is the deaf community. The two come together because the play is about a hearing family that has a grown son, Billy, who is deaf.

At Everyman Theatre, Billy is played by James McGinty, a deaf actor. McGinty has previously played Billy in Chicago and Minneapolis. He lets us see – and feel – Billy change from sweet and passive to determined, angry and independent.

When the play begins, Billy has just returned home from university. His older brother and sister have also returned to the nest while they try to shore up their faltering personal lives. 

Billy’s mother taught him to speak when he was a boy, and he is adept at lip-reading. But around the dinner table in the opening scene, Billy’s parents and siblings talk over each other and out of his sightlines. They’re so self-absorbed and caught up in petty rivalries, they don’t even realize he’s out of the loop.

That dinner scene establishes the family dynamic and sets the tone for the production. In a word, that tone is: Loud. This is particularly true of James Whalen, who opts for full volume in his portrayal of Billy’s father – a profanity-spewing, arrogant, intellectual snob.

I generally admire plays that do what they are about. “Tribes” uses noise and heated arguments to express a failure to communicate, a lack of understanding. It makes its point, but in a manner that takes its toll on the audience as well as the characters. 

If anything, director Vincent M. Lancisi ratchets up the play’s intensity; even designer Daniel Conway’s cluttered set feels busy and loud. The play is a major undertaking for Everyman, but it’s a tough production to sit through. 

The performance I attended lost a number of theatergoers at intermission. 

Everyone in Billy’s family claims to adore him. But they treat him more like a pet, making little effort to bring him into their spirited conversations. Then Billy falls in love with a young woman who is going deaf. 

Megan Anderson gives a sensitive, expressive performance as this woman, who expands Billy’s horizons by teaching him to sign. 

After spending his entire life trying to decipher spoken English, Billy decides it’s time for his family to learn to sign. Firestorms erupt.

Billy’s mother thinks he’s doing this because he’s in love. His father and his brother compare it to joining a cult or a religion. They each see Billy’s decision in terms of how it affects them – and as a defection from their tribe.

With the family members tangled up in their own, personal concerns – and with an excess of subplots -- there’s way too much going on in “Tribes.” It all relates thematically, and the occasional use of surtitles helps add clarity. 

But ultimately “Tribes” becomes a cacophony of personalities, polemics and peripheral issues. Combine that with the sound and fury of Everyman’s production, and the crucial issues of understanding and belonging are nearly overshadowed.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck

“Tribes” continues at Everyman Theatre through June 22.

Audio for this segment will be posted by the end of the day.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital producer. She collaborates with reporters and local programs to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.