Speakeasy Stage’s Compelling “Tribes” Asks The Tough Questions

Helen Schultz ’16/ Emertainment Monthly Staff

Feeling misunderstood is not that rare when you’re young – by your friends, by your family, and even by the world. It’s hard to feel a sense of belonging when it feels like everyone else is speaking a different language. Tribes asks us, “Where do we belong: with those who we were born with, or with those who finally understand us?” Speakeasy Stage Company’s beautiful production of the acclaimed British play is a look into the families into which we are born and the tribes that we make for ourselves, performed with equal parts precision and compassion.

We open on a family of intellectuals and academics: mother Beth (Adrianne Krstansky) is working on her newest novel, son Daniel (Nael Nacer) has come back home to work on his thesis after a particularly difficult breakup, father Christopher (Patrick Shea) is poised for a verbal spar with whomever enters the room, and Ruth’s (Kathryn Myles) love of singing trumps her actual talent for the art. It’s not until the brood has been arguing for close to ten minutes that we spot Billy (James Caverly), sitting quietly at the table. “What’s going on?” he asks. It’s not until we notice Beth coming closer to him so that he can read his lips that we realize: Billy is deaf. Billy spends much of his time in silence next to his hearing family. But when he meets Sylvia (Erica Spyres) whose genetic hearing loss is getting worse every day, he begins to use his voice. By the end of the second act, he has found what it is like to be heard. The moment that ensues is filled with such intensity that it’s hard to remember that one is watching a play, not witnessing an actual family fall apart before one’s eyes.

Tribes could seem trite if not for its treatment of its characters as people rather than pawns in a greater lesson. Indeed, playwright Nina Raine, who received Oliver and Evening Standard nominations for Best Play for the original London production, neither damns Billy’s family nor pities Billy – by the end of the play, no character emerges unscathed, no punch pulled. It’s a credit to the actors in the production as well – not one of the cast members is not up to the task of bringing this play to life. Especially notable is James Caverly, a deaf actor who portrays Billy in a sort of moral grey area that leaves us both disappointed in his character’s actions and rooting for him until the very end of the play. His moments of quiet exclusion are as powerful as his bursts of raw emotion. Brother Dan, played by Nael Nacer, is another standout, careening up and down the rollercoaster path of his character with grace and skill. His final scene, a reversal of his first, is so painful to watch and yet so artfully acted.

Much of Tribes is like overhearing your friend’s family argue – by turns familiar and incredibly uncomfortable. Raine asks the audience to consider difficult questions about how we listen to each other and, ultimately, how we listen to ourselves. If listening is an act of love, then what does it mean when we block out the ones who love us most? Tribes is not an easy play to watch, but it begs us to listen. With a production as compelling as this one, it’s hard not to.

Tribes is playing now through October 12 at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Art.

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