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In Everyman's 'Tribes,' a theme that resonates with its star

Deaf actor John McGinty plays a deaf character in this production

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

4:20 PM EDT, May 28, 2014

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Many a play deals with language and communication. There is always theatrical ore to be mined in the way people express themselves — or fail to — and how that can complicate so many things in life.

British playwright Nina Raine gives the subject an unusual spin in "Tribes," a 2010 work about a young deaf man named Billy, born into a hearing family full of people who communicate all too crassly or ineptly with one another.

This funny and touching play, which Everyman Theatre is staging for its season-closing production, features an actor deeply familiar with its central issues. He's John McGinty, deaf for all of his 28 years.

Within the past eight months, he performed the role of Billy at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Everyman makes it three.

"It helps that I know my lines," McGinty says through a sign language interpreter, smiling broadly and adding the universal back-of-hand-across-forehead symbol for "Whew!"

The character of Billy can only lip-read, because his parents felt that learning sign language would make him defined by his deafness. When Billy meets a going-deaf woman who teaches him to sign, everything begins to change.

"Billy is kind of naive," McGinty says, "but he is willing to try new things. [The 1980 play and 1986 movie] 'Children of a Lesser God' had a similar premise — a deaf person who wants to learn to speak. This play is about a deaf person who wants to sign."

The Cleveland-born, New York-based McGinty is quick to note that he doesn't have everything in common with the character.

"The first thing I have to say is that Billy is from a dysfunctional family, and I am not," the actor says. "And all of my family learned sign language. But I can identify with the sense of isolation Billy feels, of not immersing himself in deaf culture. I had to make a similar journey in terms of communication."

It started when McGinty was in fourth grade at a private school.

"I realized there was no interpreter, no supports for me," he says. "That was really the first moment it hit home for me what it is like to be alone. So I took matters in my own hands and left that school and went to one that allowed me to interact."

To help provide such interaction between stage and audience at Everyman, all performances of "Tribes" — and the company's future shows — will offer free, hand-held closed-caption devices. Several "Tribes" performances will also feature sign language interpreters.

As for onstage communication, that has gone smoothly since the start of rehearsals for "Tribes," directed by company artistic director Vincent Lancisi.

"I am most proud of Everyman Theatre for the way they took the steps that must be taken for a deaf actor," McGinty says. "They encourage an inclusive environment."

But performing with hearing colleagues can have its technical challenges.

"I can mention one specific scene as an example," McGinty says, "where there are two people arguing. I have a line that comes during their fight, but they are behind me. How do I know when I come in? We ended up using a visual cue. Hopefully, the audience won't catch it."

McGinty has been dealing with such circumstances since he began his acting career in college.

"It was a very small role," he says, "but something in that moment gave me the confidence and self-esteem I needed. The stage felt like a second home for me."

On his wish list for the future, McGinty mentions performing the classics, especially Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" — "The role of Puck, of course," he says.

How about writing a play to star in?

"I've tried so many times," McGinty says. "I always fail. I get a couple of pages in and realize this is awful. But maybe someday, down the line."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Tribes" runs through June 22 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $38 to $60. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.