(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Canavan.)
Finding your tribe means discovering the people you feel most at home with. Some are born into their tribe while others seek belonging outside the family.
The search to find a place of acceptance is at the heart of Nina Raine’s comic family drama, “Tribes.” The show, which premiered in London in 2010 and won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, currently has its Texas premiere at Zach Theatre under the direction of Dave Steakley.
“Tribes” opens with a lively argument between members of a hyper-intellectual British family. They gleefully contradict each other and toss profanity-laden insults back and forth with abandon.
The father, Christopher (Mitch Pileggi), is a pretentious and bombastic academic. The mother, Beth (Babs George), is writing a “marriage-breakdown detective novel.” Their depressive son Daniel (Aaron Johnson) is struggling with a thesis about the limitations of language and their daughter Ruth (Ava L’Amoreaux) wants to be an opera singer. Their youngest son, Billy (Stephen Drabicki), who was born deaf, struggles to keep up with the chaos.
Because his father didn’t want him to be defined by deafness, Billy never learned sign language. Instead he reads lips and tries to adapt to the hearing world.
When Billy meets Sylvia (Iris McQuillan-Grace), a woman who is losing her hearing, she introduces him to the deaf community and he begins to see himself as part of a different tribe. As he starts to learn American Sign Language (ASL), he finally discovers the power of his own voice.
“Tribes” raises provocative questions about family, language, disability, and empathy.
Though slow to get started, Zach’s production has moments that crackle with energy, like the scene where Billy brings Sylvia home for dinner with his family.
It’s a crucial scene, because Billy realizes just how isolated he has been, and the whole cast is engaging and at their best here.
Drabicki, who is deaf, captures Billy’s journey in a performance that grows increasingly confident as the show progresses. He is at his most expressive as his character starts communicating in sign language.
As Sylvia, Iris McQuillan-Grace stands out with a poised, funny, and moving performance of a woman who straddles two worlds, that of the hearing and the deaf.
The play is a mostly realist drama, but in a departure from previous productions of “Tribes,” Dave Steakley wanted the set to be abstract and to suggest the inside of an ear. Michelle Ney designed an eye-catching, metallic, undulating set that looms over the family.
The set doesn’t include a single straight line and a program note explains that it was incredibly difficult for technicians to execute. The effect is that it adds an air of coldness and alienation to the production and emphasizes the idea that in this play, home is never really a place of warmth. Instead it’s a strange place, a foreign land.
The second act has some surprising developments and ends on a confusing note. But “Tribes,” with its timely themes of communication, belonging, inclusion and exclusion, is a contemporary play sure to spark conversation in viewers.
“Tribes” continues through Feb. 28. at Zach Theatre. $29-$79. www.zachtheatre.org.