Director Julian Meyrick steers the team through this 2011 Laurence Olivier Award nominated play (Best New Play) with some sense of competence, opening a Pandora’s boxful of issues that launch off in tangents which sometimes do not follow through. Nina Raine’s writing is challenging- multi-faceted with layers of conflict- and would have made a thoroughly thought provoking and memorable play. Yet one can’t help but feel that MTC’s production, while addressing these complexities, does not, the way a family ultimately might, fully embrace them.
Tribes presents a household that seems like a fun, clever family steeped in trivial modern dilemmas, its members attacking one another with wit and precision. The language here is used eloquently and effortlessly- so much so that they often fail to engage with their youngest son, Billy (Luke Watts,) deaf since birth, who has been brought up to lip read rather than to sign. One is immediately made aware of this pressure-cooker premise of a plot. Despite their best intentions, the robustly opinionated family fail to acknowledge that keeping Sign Language away from Billy ostracizes him from much of society, and ironically, from themselves. When Billy meets the confident Sylvia (Alison Bell,) whose hearing is quickly deteriorating to nothing, she infiltrates the wary family and encourages Billy to learn Sign Language, causing conflict with the family’s long-standing plan of raising him as a ‘hearing’ person.
Each of the actors delivers solid performances of very likable characters that draw us into their world. Stephen Curtis’ set immediately describes, through light metaphors, an incomplete household where, through missing walls, we are able to observe all the action that is caged within a perimeter of fencing. Occasionally, the action slides seamlessly back and forth on retractable floors that seem expensive and unnecessary. Louise McCarthy costumes the characters in intentionally mismatched clothes to portray eccentricity while adding to the omnipresent state of confusion. Of some particular curiosity for me though, is the use of a curtain tie to fasten the kimono; Whimsical, but distracting.
Though confusion is at the crux of the plot and is very apparent, this production slowly loses sense of itself, leading to an unsatisfactory conclusion. Still, days later, it resounds deep in me and for that, I feel, it is worth its price of admission.