Billy has returned home from university to live with his parents, both authors, and his older brother and sister who are both trying to find their way in life, to "find their voice." This is a family that shows its affection through arguing with and insulting each other (something those of us coming from "Minnesota nice" families may not recognize). Siblings Dan and Ruth pick on each other relentlessly, and father Chris is constantly haranguing his children and their life choices. The opening scene of the play is one big long argument over dinner, with Billy sitting quietly, occasionally asking what's going on, and being told "it's nothing." He's alone in the storm that is his family. Perhaps for this reason everyone loves Billy the best, but maybe they don't really know him. He meets Sylvia at a party, a woman who's fluent in sign and dealing with slowly losing her hearing, and is instantly smitten by her and the deaf community he has so far avoided. He learns to sign and becomes a part of this community, at the same time Sylvia is longing to leave it for the bigger world. Billy decides to stop talking to his family until they make the effort to learn sign language for him. He tells them he doesn't feel like he belongs, and he doesn't need them anymore. Billy is finally fully able to express himself, and everything he's been holding back his whole life comes out, and it's absolutely devastating.
This play lulled me into thinking it was a sharp and acerbic comedy, and then the second act delves into these deep and painful issues like a knife to the heart. The exploration of the idea of language and how that relates to feelings is fascinating. At one extreme is the family patriarch, a retired professor and author who believes that you can't feel something unless you have the words to express it. And therefore, he believes that people who speak in sign language are somehow shallower than people who use spoken words. Ruth is an aspiring opera singer trying to "find her voice," who believes that the music itself expresses emotions even without words. Signing is like music, and is as beautiful as poetry. It can also be harsh and ugly, as when Billy lets loose his pent-up feelings. He tells his father this is the first time he's really listening to him, and it's because he stopped speaking. This is the kind of play that's so full, I wish I had time to go back and see it again to let it soak in more completely.
|an uncomfortable family dinner|
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)
I know you're already saying to yourself, "I've got to see this play!" But just wait, I haven't told you about the set yet! And what an incredible set, unlike anything I've ever seen. The three walls of the family's living space are covered floor to very high ceiling in books, like some giant library. It's the kind of room I'd like to be trapped in for days, weeks, months, and just escape from the world into the world of books (which is what several members of this family do). The wood floor curves over the end of the stage and spills into my lap in my front row seat of the proscenium theater. The large space is filled with a dining room table, couch, a few chairs, and a piano (used to beautiful effect). A party scene and a bedroom are achieved by the lowering of a wall and the entrance of a table or bed. This is a play that would be brilliant on a bare stage, but the addition of this wondrous set by Alexander Dodge takes it one step further.
Tribes continues on the Guthrie's Proscenium Theater stage through November 10. I highly recommend it. Yes, I'm a big fan of the Guthrie (this is my 11th year as season subscriber) and enjoy pretty much everything they do, but this is one of the best plays I've seen there in quite a while. My favorite play of last season was Clybourne Park, and this reminds me of that in the harsh and real way it opens up issues. But this I think has more heart to it. It's emotional and thought-provoking, beautifully written and acted. In short, it's everything I want a play to be.