What we have in "Tribes," the agitated and absorbing play by Nina Raine receiving its Baltimore premiere at Everyman Theatre, isn't a failure to communicate. It's a stubborn, even proud, refusal to communicate.
While four members of a well-educated London family speak over and through one another, wounding and goading as they go, the fifth does what he can to keep up, to fit in, or just stay out of the way. He's Billy, the youngest child, born deaf into a hearing family — not a listening family, mind you, just a hearing one.
Billy's parents reason that their son is better off not being defined by his deafness, not being assimilated into the deaf community, which would only make him feel more handicapped. And because sign language is such a visible, well, sign of deafness, Billy has been required to lip-read instead. No one seems to notice that this just makes him more and more isolated.
The Everyman staging, with a potent cast sensitively directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, shines a bright light on the intersecting conflicts in "Tribes."
A chance meeting with Sylvia (Megan Anderson), a young woman who is going deaf and is fluent in signing, opens the door to a new world for Billy (John McGinty). It’s a door the young man’s neurotic, ever-squabbling family would happily shut.
It turns out that Billy’s possible escape from home threatens, in some way, everyone else — Daniel (Alexander Strain), the sexually frustrated brother who hears voices in his head; Ruth (Annie Grier), the sister, an aspiring opera singer who laments, "If only I could find my voice"; and Beth (Deborah Hazlett), the mother who hasn't really got a clue how to writer her "marriage-breakdown detective novel."
Then there's the father, Christopher (James Whalen). His habit of retreating behind earphones to take lessons in Chinese says everything about the skewed values, the strange perspectives in this household.
Raine builds the first act of her play masterfully, leading to the big moment when Billy brings Sylvia home to meet the family. Things go from awkward to worse, with Christopher prodding Sylvia to defend the use of sign language.
When the ugly debate finally recedes, Sylvia notices a piano in the corner of the room. Her disintegrating hearing means that music is just "a roaring sound now," but she goes to the instrument anyway. As she starts to play a bit of Debussy, everyone draws closer — everyone but Billy, who seems more apart than ever.
This tough and poignant scene is made doubly effective by McGinty's natural and layered portrayal of Billy. Throughout the play, the deaf actor communicates as much with his searching eyes as with his hands and, in some of the play's most affecting moments, his speaking voice.
Just try to stop the lump from forming in your throat when, in Act 2, McGinty delivers Billy's impassioned message — through signing — that he has spent his life trying to understand his family, so now they can try to understand him. (Projected translations of signed dialogue are integrated into Daniel Conway's finely detailed set.)
Anderson is likewise a compelling presence, making palpable Sylvia's precarious perch between two worlds. Strain deftly captures Daniel's mix of dependency and belligerence; his work in the final, cathartic scene is very moving.
There is much to admire as well in the way Whalen conveys the convictions that drive Christopher, and how Hazlett gradually reveals the soul of Beth. Grier rounds out the cast vibrantly.
Some bits of the plot, including Billy's trouble with his new job in Act 2, don't entirely persuade. And the vulgar humor in "Tribes" can sound forced after a while. But when all is said and signed, the play exerts an unusually strong pull. Everyman's production does the same.