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Fierce intellectual tug of war around the dinner table

THEATER REVIEW: "Tribes" at Steppenwolf Theatre ★★★½

Chris Jones

5:13 PM EST, December 15, 2013

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Low-grade verbal abuse of those you love passes as humorous small talk in many British households, especially those populated by snarky writers, creative types and insufferable academics from the so-called humanities. Such a family — progressive when it comes to talking about sex or politics, insular and myopic if someone shows up at their merciless dinner table who has never heard of, say, Antonin Dvorak — is at the center of Nina Raine's layered and sophisticated drama “Tribes,” a work that was a big hit off-Broadway for director David Cromer and now is enjoying its first Chicago production at the Steppenwolf Theatre from director Austin Pendleton.

Raine, a young British writer who has made a big splash with this prismatic play, is partly a satirist whose barbs will ring true to anyone who grew up in a household where discussions of semiotics accompanied the wine (the cheese being optional), or whose achievements never quite lived up to parental standards, or maybe (for those of us of humbler origins) who found themselves being grilled at an intellectually hostile dinner table after making the mistake of dating the child of such a family.

But as carefully observed (and as recognizable on both sides of the Atlantic) as the characters of “Tribes” may be, the play is not just an academic satire in the David Lodge or Kingsley Amis mode, but an uncommonly fine play determined to explore the intersection of communication and power.

All three of the 20-something children of the family in “Tribes” still live at home with their parents, Christopher (Francis Guinan) and Beth (Molly Regan) — none of these arrested adults having fully or gainfully gotten their professional or personal acts together. There's Ruth (Helen Sadler), an aspiring musician in need of a boyfriend; Daniel (Steve Haggard), an ill-focused student who could do to get a job; and Billy (John McGinty). Billy has been deaf since birth. And McGinty is a deaf actor, forceful and unstinting.

The inciting incident in the play arrives when Billy, who has been raised by his family to lip read their speech, critical and otherwise, and not to use sign language, meets a young outsider named Sylvia (Alana Arenas), who is the child of deaf parents and who is slowly losing her hearing as well. Through meeting Sylvia, Billy becomes introduced to the politics of the deaf community. Wherein, she tells him and us, there is quite the hierarchy of deaf bonafides — those who have been deaf since birth trumping those who have gone deaf, much as a Roman Catholic by birth is perceived as having the edge over a convert. Sylvia, whose influence on Billy is complicated, also talks of the smallness of a community where everyone has slept with everyone else, and of her own ambivalence about her new identity. Nonetheless, Billy arrives at a more critical understanding of his parents' decision to, in essence, refuse to allow their son to define himself as deaf as the chief marker of his identity.

And thus “Tribes” shapes up as a battle between lip reading and signing, or, on a deeper level, whether it is better for a deaf child to learn to function in a hearing world using the rules of a hearing world, or whether his hearing family members actually have a moral obligation to communicate with their loved one using a language — sign language — developed primarily for the deaf and one that allows the deaf full linguistic control.

This moral conundrum works so well in the theater because Raine has shored up the arguments so well on each side. Weird and critical as it may be, Billy's family is loving. Indeed, the clear manifestation of that ramshackle familial love is the great strength of Pendleton's Steppenwolf production, especially in the very moving performances of Guinan and Regan, both of whom leave no doubt in the intensity of their affections for their needy kids — even as they are unsparing in showing us how their narcissistic characters mess up the very kids they love so much. Still, Raine's play honors Christopher and Beth's child rearing cause where deaf Billy is concerned: These very smart parents are convinced it is limiting for any kid to be defined by his or her disability, and thus they refuse to treat him any differently. On the other hand, Raine simultaneously charts a clear imbalance in one kid being constantly forced to sit at a disadvantage in familial debate: Even a great lip reader can't compute everything. Should the family members who claim to love him have not met him where he lives? Should they not have been willing to subsume their own damn egos?

One other admirable aspect of this script, which I came to admire yet more on my second viewing, is that the way these parents have raised their deaf kid is a metaphor for the struggles of Billy's hearing siblings. As Haggard explores with great veracity and intensity, Daniel has a stammer, and Sadler shows us a Ruth with cripplingly little self-esteem. Still, even as you sit there thankful you did not have these parents, you also understand their tough-love points of view. Victimhood is, ultimately, limiting. Why should kids with challenges be the objects of reduced expectations?

Of course, in the case of Billy, many would argue that sign language is not about reducing anything, but this play relentlessly debates assimilation versus separation, mainstreaming versus seeking the embrace of a particular community, imperfect as that community may be. “Tribes” also is very much about the perils of self-definition, just as much as it charts the great relief we all feel when, we meet someone, finally, who understands our junk.

If you are dealing with any of this stuff (handicaps, disabilities in your family, whatever), and you find open debate scarce in a world of politically correct tiptoeing around the truth, you'll likely find this an especially stimulating, smart and important play.

Pendleton's production has a few eccentricities. I found the last few minutes, leading into the bows, to be vague in their storytelling at Saturday afternoon's performance, greatly muddying the emotional climax of the play in a rather distressing way for me, frankly. It should get fixed, pronto. And the set, from Walt Spangler, features a strange upstairs room that never gets used. I suppose it's a visual symbol of Billy's isolation, which is fair enough on paper but, in theatrical practice, it turns out to be a distraction, especially since we see Billy and Sylvia coming from somewhere else together. It just doesn't track, and, as Cromer's simpler staging proved in New York, it's an unnecessary trick in the first place.

That said, the heart of this drama is dinner-table conversation, and those domestic realities really come to vibrant and strikingly compassionate life with Pendleton at the helm. I think there are a few moments when Arenas' natural sense of vulnerability works against the play's careful balance of Sylvia as part liberator and part a dangerously malcontent interloper in Billy's life, and the romantic connection between Arenas and McGinty is not all it could be nor all the play demands. But once this group gets around its kitchen table, and the very familiar family recipe of love and mutual destruction gets cooking, then “Tribes” works very powerfully. As a director, Pendleton invariably shows compassion for all the characters in his care, which makes him a good match for “Tribes.” He just has a way of showing us struggles that feel so much like our own.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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When: Through Feb. 9

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $20-$82 at 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org