For some reason, I keep confusing the name for “Slaves” when I am thinking about Tribes, the play currently running at Artists Repertory Theater in Southwest Portland. Supposing it was called “Slaves” instead, perhaps—aside from the controversial connotations of that word (not to be taken lightly)—we could still be discussing the same play. Often with tribal warfare, there are slaves on each side of the conflict. But more to the point, we are sometimes slaves to something that we are ignorant of, and on other occasions, to something that we take for granted.
Nina Raine is a normal woman whose creativity and curiosity brought us the script for Tribes, a play about one abnormal family and the tribulations of Billy, the only deaf member of an otherwise talkative, loud, obnoxious, intellectual and creative family. Billy is meek and quiet, not simply because he is hearing-impaired, but because he is the only one spared from the constant abrasion of heated discourse around the house. This annoyance brings so much comic relief that you might confuse the play for a comedy, rather than the drama that it is.
The family is headed by an alpha-type hetero-male (Christopher) whose career late in life, with three grown-up children living at home, is simply, Author. He is blunt and unapologetic. He drinks wine, not beer, and shouts across the house about the meaning of some philosophical principle, not demanding for someone to find the TV remote: alpha-male all the same. All of his family members, save for Billy, compete to outwit him, doing so for his attention and admiration.
The Mother, Beth, is much more like a mediator in the crossfire. She is writing a novel that sounds more like a therapy project, modeling the story and characters around a family much like theirs. She is frequently compromising for everyone’s sake. She wants for no more than to understand everyone. There is also a sense of longing for relief from it.
While taking a break from the social pressure at a big party, Billy meets Sylvia, also seeking a break from the party’s incessant conversation. Sylvia immediately grabs his adoration, partly because she immediately recognizes that he is deaf. His capacity to read lips and communicate verbally impresses Sylvia while her versatility with sign language impresses Billy. He is a grown deaf man that cannot sign. His family did not learn the language and insisted on raising him like a hearing person. Billy and Sylvia do not belong in the deaf tribe, at least not yet.
Sylvia is losing her hearing rapidly, but what seems to be most distressing about it is that she is losing her sense of self and sanity. Billy, on the other hand, is being introduced to the deaf tribe, because she is trying to integrate and get ahead of the curve, and so, he is expanding his sense of self. He identified himself as a speaking person, largely dependent on his family for discourse. This is problematic.
His family is dysfunctional, truly, because nobody is progressing. Christopher complains of their presence, almost abusively, but they all seem to play in to it and enjoy it on some level. Ruth, his daughter, is working on a career in Opera, although it seems she is truly just licking her wounds and dealing with personal insecurity. Daniel is a deeply troubled fellow. It seems that Christopher is especially rough on him. Dan has picked up a pot-smoking habit and suffers from auditory hallucinations; he hears his family yelling at him when they aren’t there. He seems himself like his Dad, a writer, but is developing a thesis to oppose him.
Daniel is writing a thesis about language. He exclaims that language cannot touch experience; it is but a cold carbon copy of life, deprived of sensuality and emotion. Christopher holds for the opposite. In a tense scene with Sylvia, being treated to dinner at home for the first time, he grills her, demanding an answer to his philosophical dilemma, “How can you know how you feel until you have a word for it!” Billy has to reassure her that this is what he does when he likes someone.
Sylvia’s influence on Billy takes him to a new life, finding work and new friends. Billy embraces the deaf for the first time; he changes tribes. His family’s endless swirling about of ideas and abuse of language is not missed, as he integrates to a new, independent life. Not only has Billy moved to the hearing tribe, he is starting to move on from his nutty family tribe.
This causes a lashing out. Sylvia is caught in the middle as a hearing woman in the midst of losing herself, not just to deafness, but also to Billy. The family must defend themselves against his accusations that they never accepted him. Daniel starts losing it, increasingly tormented by hallucinations and personal flaws. As conflict ensues and the play winds up to a climax, one begins to reflect on the role that language plays across our lives.
Christopher is a slave to language and takes for granted his tribe, leading them with a kind of force that never contributes to healthy love, yet he needs them to orient himself in the world. Daniel resists language, seeks experience but seems to be afraid to live, a slave to his own uncertainty and the security that is brought with a robust family, but he especially needs Billy. Beth is not so transparent. She just kind of wades through the madness, much like her Mother, Ruth. We know Ruth better because she injects herself in to the middle of everything but stands up for almost nothing.
The performances are strong. Billy, played by Stephen Drabicki, a hearing-impaired actor, takes many scenes. The actor appears to be every bit as strong, honest, and likeable as Billy. He has performed this work across three other productions in California and Canada. He says, “the play is, ironically enough, really meant for hearing audiences.” To inject him in to this character is quite natural, because he has worked to stay integrated with the hearing world his whole life.
Amy Newman is Sylvia, and she is among the resident artists at Artists Rep for two plays this season. She and Michael Mendelson bring the strongest presence to the supporting roles (Sylvia and Christopher). They are the two most pivotal characters. Damaso Rodriguez directs the Portland run. He attempted to see it in New York during Superstorm Sandy, but it was cancelled. He eventually saw it in Los Angeles, leaving him with the ambition to bring it to Portland. The technical and creative talent involved with this performance, I would bet, made his job easy.
The script is widely well received; debuting almost five years ago in London, it has toured the globe since and continues making the rounds. A very modern script, it entails the use of digital projection for subtitling and quite a bit more. Sound and lighting design occasionally transforms the mood in an instant; pushing the viewers’ orientation off its axis. Reforming just as quickly, the viewer is grabbed a hold of and tossed about.
One afterthought that gets me is that of modernism and the flaws of post-modernism. The play is itself utterly modern, employing all of the signatures. It is a 2-Act play, it uses technology, lighting, and set design to achieve grand effects, and it deals with modern themes. But I continue to feel like the family represents post-modernism: messy, semi-functional, loud, and self-referential. When you apply the insanity of post-modernism to family values, I think you get this as the result. I am not entirely sure how to explain it. If you go to this play, you can tell me. There is a comment box right below.