It's hard to recall a recent play that dealt more directly or more multiply with the limits of language than Tribes. The domestic drama by British playwright Nina Raine (Rabbit) concerns a family of proud eccentrics who demonstrate their love via argumentativeness. Flinty patriarch Christopher (Francis Guinan), an academic, interrogates the intellectual reasoning of his adult son Daniel (Steve Haggard), who battles voices in his head and is regressing toward the crippling stammer of his childhood. Daughter Ruth (Helen Sadler) lashes out at Dan seemingly out of insecurity about her own creative life (or lack thereof), while mother Beth (Molly Regan), a writer and translator, tries to soften the blows when she's not dishing them out herself.
Lost amid the clamor is middle child Billy (John McGinty). Born deaf into a family whose relationship to language actually made them ideologically opposed to teaching him sign language, Billy sits silent and neglected at the dinner table while cacophony rages around him.
Things begin to look up for Billy when he begins to venture out to deaf community events. At an exhibit opening, he meets Sylvia (Alana Arenas), a child of deaf parents who's now losing her own hearing; he's immediately taken both with her and the sense of belonging to a culture. When Billy brings her around for dinner and his insular family—particularly his father—learns she's been teaching him to sign, they perceive her as a threat.
Raine's clan of disputatious oddballs flings plenty of entertaining invective, but the real treat of Tribes is the play's multifaceted engagement with ideas of communication, identity and individuality. Christopher objects to the concept of deafness as an identity—or as he puts it, "your flaw [becoming] your personality"—to the point of an illogical outburst denying his son is even deaf. This demonstrates the extent to which the family has refused to accomodate Billy's needs and why he might so eagerly embrace a newfound world of people with comparable experiences.
Yet as Billy dives into the community, Sylvia reveals her own weariness of "the same faces" and the tribe's "hierarchical" nature: How Billy, for instance, is viewed as a purer member, having been deaf from birth—"better a cradle Catholic than a convert." Sylvia's increasing fear of losing contact with the hearing world as her hearing recedes threatens to drive a wedge into the burgeoning relationship.
Steppenwolf's cast is spot-on, with Guinan fulminating and frustrating and Regan his appealing foil. McGinty, coming directly from the same role at the Guthrie Theater, gives a layered, perceptive performance as Billy that's well matched in Arenas's empathetic, imperfect Sylvia, while Haggard's increasingly disconsolate Daniel establishes a needy but tender brotherly bond. Austin Pendleton's direction seems to hit all the right tones, though his physical staging could be cleaner; the actors too often find themselves awkwardly clumped in corners of Walt Spangler's tatty abode.
Raine's script flags a bit toward the finish line, as well, particularly in a fizzling plotline about Billy's new courtroom job reading lips from surveillance video. But as a portrayal of the necessity and power of being not just heard but listened to, Tribes comes through loud and clear.