Language is king in "Tribes," a sharp, humor-infused drama about an insular family of boisterous eccentrics. Christopher, the patriarch (a strong Francis Guinan) is a professor whose linguistic criticisms are both well-intentioned and harsh. Siblings Ruth (Helen Sadler) and Daniel (Steve Haggard) are respectively, a novice opera singer and a phD candidate. Although adults, the two live with their parents, and devote most of their time to squabbles over Daniel’s thesis and Ruth’s lack of boyfriend. Perhaps the most empathetic of the bunch, mother Beth (an adept Molly Regan) is an aspiring novelist. The show opens in a barrage of foul language and sexual jokes as the group gathers around the dinner table while son Billy (John McGinty), deaf from birth, struggles to keep up with his fast-talking family.
Over the play’s course, as Billy meets and falls in love with Sylvia (the always capable Alana Arenas), a woman slowly losing her hearing, we learn that Billy’s father insisted that rather than studying American sign language, Billy be raised to lip-read. Believing ASL a kind of pigeon-English, Christopher didn’t want Billy’s intelligence blunted, his humanity curtailed. Interestingly, Sylvia’s sign language is perhaps Tribes’ most graceful mode of communication, its subtle visual poetry clearly intended to bely Christopher's theory.
"Tribes" is never as ribald as during its opening scene, as if playwright Nina Raine used profanity to establish character then lost interest. In fact, the show seems comprised of thematic gestures rather than fully formed through-lines. Like a distracted hummingbird, Raine lands briefly on the idea that Ruth’s interest in opera runs counter to her family’s focus on language, though the use of superscripts to translate Billy’s flattened speech seems to align his language and opera as modes of communication. In addition, the purpose of the superscripts fluctuates; several times they are used to translate Daniel’s increasingly stutter-ridden speech, and only once do they serve to reveal the meaning behind a silent interchange between the brothers. Mid-show she also grants Daniel a stutter which apparently correlates both with his aural hallucinations and Billy’s increasing independence. However, the origin of Daniel’s afflictions exists in a metaphorical file marked “communication issues;” their concrete source is never confronted.
Overall, Steppenwolf’s strong production elevates a thematically jumbled script. Under Austin Pendleton’s decisive direction, the talented cast delivers potent performances. Particular standouts include Sadler whose emotional range impresses and Haggard who imbues Daniel’s vague mass of snobbishness, jealousy and artificial madness with real humanity. Raine’s primary interest seems the exploration of shifting allegiances, and delving into character and examining familial relationships, her insights are clear and her observations incisive. However, when she belatedly tacks on a plot arc involving Billy’s job reading lips from surveillance tapes, the result is a character piece with plot served cold on the side. In the end, if "Tribes" plucks at the heart strings, it’s may be the rich subject matter that deserves credit.