Tribes at the Guthrie Theater

Tracey Maloney and John McGinty in Tribes.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Tracey Maloney and John McGinty in Tribes. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Tribes by Nina Raine (at the Guthrie Theater, through November 10) fascinates most when addressing  the nature of language: what is the connection between abstract language and the gloriously messy life it represents?  And: is deaf signing a real language?  Can it be used to develop abstract ideas?  Express irony?  What about intense emotions?  Does it resemble music, the character Ruth provocatively asks, with a build and swell and structure?  These questions come from writers, professors, students, inveterate arguers all, who snipe at each other with an often shrill edge of exuberance.

Sylvia, the object of their frenzied inquiries, holds her own and then some.  Sylvia is a hearing woman going deaf, i.e., moving from the hearing tribe into the deaf tribe.  She effectively inhabits both worlds (though her deafness is taking over, evidenced by her increasing inability to understand what the hearing characters say, and by the way she speaks).  Played by the luminous Tracey Maloney, Sylvia is Raine’s finest creation, a woman facing her deafness with poise and calm courage.  Despite (or perhaps because of) her contained presence, I fully understood Billy and his troubled brother Daniel’s passion for her.  Every time Maloney takes the McGuire stage the energy-level in Tribes ratchets skyward.  Fabulous work – and if you’re looking for a reason to see Tribes, Maloney provides it.

Similarly interesting is the character of Billy (a lovely performance by John McGinty).  Billy is a deaf man raised by an insensitive hearing family, who never bothered to learn sign, never bothered to connect with who Billy really is.  The opening image is typical: as his parents and Billy’s brother and sister carry loudly on, Billy sits calmly eating his dinner, unaware of the histrionics swirling around him.

But then Billy meets Sylvia and falls emphatically in love –  “It was like there was an empty seat at my table and she filled it.”  Sylvia transforms Billy’s life, teaches him to sign, moves him from the hearing tribe into the much more natural and satisfying tribe of deafness.  Under her influence, Billy tells his appalled and astonished family that he will no longer speak to them; he intends to use sign exclusively.

But there are frustrations with this play: why does Billy abruptly break things off with Sylvia?  After rejecting his family so dramatically, why does Billy return to them so quickly?  Billy’s criminality comes out of nowhere and is undeveloped.  What are we to make of brother Daniel’s sudden kiss?

Similarly, Tribes is, imo, an ineffective portrait of a family in turmoil.  Characters feel undeveloped, locked into attitudes, static.  I found their constant snarkiness off-putting.  I realize that I am revealing here an American prejudice; British audiences might have much less trouble with this.  I yam who I yam.  All this stems from Raine’s distressing tendency to see her characters as members of various tribes, rather than as fully fleshed out individuals.  Tribes is “identity drama,” with all its attending limitations.

The Guthrie cast acquits itself, no surprise here, extremely well: vets Sally Wingert and Hugh Kennedy, along with (relative) newcomers Stephen Schnetzer and Anna Reichert work wonders with TribesWendy C. Goldberg directs with aplomb and Alexander Dodge‘s set amazes.  The play, while occasionally frustrating, works well.  And Maloney is a revelation.

Also playing at the Guthrie: Uncle Vanya and the excellent An Iliad.

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For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.



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