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Theater review: NTID/RIT's "Tribes"

An important yet unfocused look at the deaf experience


One of theater's greatest strengths is its ability to illuminate the experience of the underrepresented, the marginalized, and the disregarded. A timely play can foster connection and understanding where there was once alienation and confusion. "Tribes," a play by Nina Raine, attempts to draw from this strength, with limited success.

It's not that this production of "Tribes" -- presented by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf's Performing Arts Program and RIT's College of Liberal Arts -- is without spark. Led by director Jerry Argetsinger, the cast brings passion and energy, but it seems hamstrung by a script that is ultimately unfocused and unable to build on the empathy it seeks to engender.

"Tribes" is the story of Billy, a young deaf man whose parents raised him apart from the deaf community and without the aid of sign language. When Billy falls in love with a woman named Sylvia, who is losing her hearing, he becomes immersed in the deaf community. Tensions arise as he begins to understand the emotional consequences of his separation from the people to whom he might best relate.

If the playwright had focused on Billy's inner workings and his struggle to find a true sense of home, the humor-infused drama may have had more potency. But apart from one cathartic scene, Billy's motivations and emotional vantage point are left grossly underdeveloped. The central character's experience is referred to constantly, but gets superficial mention instead of thorough exploration.

Instead, "Tribes" is really more about Billy's dysfunctional family -- his cynical, disapproving, and overly crass father, Christopher; his erratic and hypercritical brother, Daniel; his doting and protective mother Beth; and his self-involved sister Ruth -- and the toxic culture that their in-fighting creates. And while Beth and Ruth are somewhat empathetic figures (played by Jen Moore and Katharyn Head, respectively) all of the characters are drawn sharply and without nuance. The bristling piquancy of their personalities belie a one-dimensionality, as if Raine regards her characters with a certain amount of scorn that prevents her from revealing their innate humanity.

As a family drama, "Tribes" works rather well. The collective combative nature of Billy's family is palpable, and the stark contrast of Billy's affability -- played by the likeable Matthew Schwartz -- underscores their disconnect. Tom Weymann turns in a robust performance as Christopher, and Meredith Lipman is endearing as Sylvia. But it's Adrian Svenson, as Daniel, whose compelling portrayal is most impactful. Svenson's commitment to communicating the character's distraught nature is mesmerizing; Daniel's hyperactive and unstable energy provides many of the scenes with much-needed momentum.

In a family consumed by its own self-absorption and faux-intellectual fascinations, Daniel is the physical manifestation of their dysfunction, failures, and unhappiness. While his love for Billy often seems manipulative and selfish, it serves to hide deeper fears of alienation. These fears become more apparent and spread to other members of the family as Billy finds connection with others in the deaf community.

Dramatically speaking, "Tribes" has staying power. But ultimately, the play can't seem to decide whether it is about Billy's search for community or his family's tenuous bond with him. Unfortunately, Raines alludes to Billy's frustrations without actually addressing them, and in an attempt to articulate his crippling home environment, the drama loses its grip on how Billy's home life might be reconciled to his burgeoning experience.

In an interesting coincidence, Nazareth College will produce a run of "Tribes" on February 12 through February 21 at Studio Theatre A48 at Nazareth College Arts Center (4245 East Avenue). The back-to-back productions was not planned. For more information, visit