theater (reviews)

review: tribes

Tribes

by Nina Raine
Directed by David Cromer
Featuring Mare Winningham, Jeff Perry, Will Brill, Russell Harvard
Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street Street
March 6, 2012 — September 2, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
February 28, 2012 & May 29, 2012

[clockwise from lower left] Susan Pourfar, Gayle Rankin, Mare Winningham, Jeff Perry, Will Brill, Russell Harvard. Photo by Sara Krulwich.

I first experienced this delicious and powerful show just a few days into its preview period in late February of this year.  I will travel far to see what director David Cromer does with anything, and was particularly intrigued to see what he would do with a new work rather than his usual engagement with American classics.  I don’t know the back story behind Cromer’s engagement with this work, breaking his stated preference for the long-established and almost canonical. However he came to this work, what he has provided to us is an on-going gift. And my goodness, this repeat viewing is a thrill.

This is a story of sound and silence, culture and context, maverick and clan philosophies in conflict — or equipoise. A self-described artistic family keeps to itself and rebuffs convention and in the process almost loses its soul.  I grew up with people like this — there is familiarity, envy, and a troubling sense of loneliness and sorrow in the recollection. Dad Christopher (Jeff Perry) is a writer, a happy builder of a family unit he continually reminds to rebuff all convention, and a man uncomfortable with any mainstream accommodations in politics, in philosophy, in daily living.  Mom Beth (Mare Winningham) is also a writer (and may perhaps find commercial success) in, as she says, crafting a mystery by revealing the ending then going back and putting in the clues. And the adult children who live with them — Ruth (Gayle Rankin) the bit-part opera singer, Daniel (Will Brill) the working-on-the-umpteenth-draft-of-the-probably-never-to-be-completed thesis, and now a return home from graduated and jobless Billly (Russell Harvard). Billy — deaf from birth yet wears hearing aids and taught to lip read and to blend in to the hearing majority world — has come home as a young adult to rejoin the verbal reclusive family menagerie as he figures out what to do with his life.

The story that unfolds reveals how all the people around Billy deal with his clear decisions about finding that life path.  Billy finds an intriguing girl friend Sylvia (Susan Pourfar) who has her own complicated relationship with hearing and families and sound, and truly and honestly loves Billy.  Possibilities of life and conversation and sound as written (projected supertitles by Jeff Sugg are a choreographed and graphically delectable character in the production) and as played by the characters (on a radio) and as shared through the theatre sound system just — entrance.

All the actors give delicately calibrated performances in this very special now extended production.  My first visit with this production came some months ago during previews, as all the actors were just getting their footing with their characters. During that viewing I was riveted by Russell Harvard as the deaf son and his journey into independence and political and cultural awareness. That performance still haunts me — yet this week’s experience with the show belongs to Will Brill as Daniel, the hearing brother who has his own challenges, in a layered performance that has evolved over several months.  I heard from director Cromer in the lobby prior to curtain (he was in town just to check in) that this was Brill’s last performance with the original production cast.  This farewell as stammering and hearing brother Daniel brings the house down, quietly, and tears to the eyes of every member of the cast.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 31, 2012)

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