Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Tribes" at the Guthrie Theater

The new play Tribes, by British playwright Nina Raine, is about nothing less than the nature of love, family, language, words, books, emotions, music, and the interaction of all of these things. The framework in which these issues are explored is a dysfunctional family with three adult children, one of whom was born deaf, all living with their parents in North London. The deaf child never learned to sign, and instead learned to read the lips, faces, and bodies of his family. But still, the nuances of their boisterous interactions are lost to him. He meets a woman who grew up hearing in a deaf family, but is slowly losing her hearing. This introduction to the deaf community opens up a new world to him and makes him look at his family differently, with devastating results. While the element of deafness vs. hearing and the use of sign language (with surtitles to translate) is a fascinating element of the play, at its heart is a very real and human story of belonging and finding your place in the world, and how to navigate that journey within the family you were born into. Tribes is an excellent play and the Guthrie has assembled a stellar cast, which makes for a completely absorbing night at the theater. This is the first play I've seen of the Guthrie's 2013-2014 season (I see Uncle Vanya next week), and judging by this example, it's going to be an extraordinary season in the big blue building on the river.

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)
This six-person cast is a dream. Most of them are known and beloved to me from their work on the Guthrie and other local stages, along with two cast-members making their Guthrie debut - one of those accomplished soap/theater actors, and a deaf actor who so completely embodies his character physically and emotionally. At the head of this crazy family is Stephen Schnetzer, who is best known for playing Cass Winthrop on Another World for many years (and whom I know for taking that character to my beloved soap As the World Turns when AW went off the air). But he's also an accomplished theater actor (as many NYC soap actors are), and he's fantastic on stage. He's so good at playing this selfish, arrogant, egotistical man that I almost wanted to boo him at curtain call! Matching him as his wife Beth is our own beloved Sally Wingert, who makes the most of every moment (I particularly enjoyed Beth's befuddlement while answering her cell phone), and also conveys the deep love for her very different children in the midst of the craziness. Anna Reichert and Hugh Kennedy are so great as the bickering siblings, walking the fine line between spoiled brat and sympathetic young adult. Hugh Kennedy absolutely ripped my heart out. His character is so mean to his sister and parents in the first act that you wonder why he is so mean, and soon learn that his attitude is covering a deep sensitivity and mental illness. By the end of the play his childhood stammer and the voices in his head have returned, and he wears a slouchy sweater like armor around his wounded soul. Tracey Maloney has the Herculean task of speaking in several languages - sign, spoken English, and the high-pitched and slightly broken English of someone who can no longer hear their own voice - and she does it all beautifully. Last but certainly not least is John McGinty as Billy. The most powerful moment of the play is when Billy finally finds his voice and tells his family that he feels left out. It's devastating, but in John's hands it's a thing of painful beauty. When he begins signing is when his acting finds depth.

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.

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