Review: ‘Tribes’ and the all-consuming power of words

 Laurie Klatscher, Tad Cooley, John Judd, Robin Abramson, and Alex Hoeffler in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of

Laurie Klatscher, Tad Cooley, John Judd, Robin Abramson, and Alex Hoeffler in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of "Tribes." (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

In “Tribes,” a play that bursts with life and energy in a new Philadelphia Theatre Company production, it’s all about words.

That’s not what “Tribes” was about for me two summers back, when I saw it twice in its hot-ticket Off-Broadway production. There, it was brutally funny and paced with the wildness of a runaway train, happily hammering us to consider the vagaries of hearing –what we hear and what we fail to hear. In its Philadelphia Theatre Company staging, “Tribes” takes on a wholly different emphasis – one that doesn’t detract a whit from the playwriting brilliance of Nina Raine and in fact, may enlarge on it.

 

Stuart Carden’s production, swift but more emphatic, is about those things aimed at our hearing – the very words we’re able to use: how we say them, what we mean by them, the values we assign them and even the way we make them up. That’s a lot to attribute to a play that’s, on the face of it, very funny and oddly authentic – I admit, you won’t find many families whose members intellectually spar while ceaselessly shooting F-arrows at one another from an endless arsenal. But there, again: words, words, words.

What did they do in Philly, change the script? Of course not. Carden simply saw the script – the words – in another way and sent a band of willing and talented actors to run in that direction. They, in turn, are fleet and have a clear sense of where they’re going – Laurie Klatscher and John Judd as the writers who parent this British clan; Alex Hoeffler as an out-of-work adult son who’s overcome a severe stutter only to attract nagging voices in his head; Robin Abramson as his sister, a would-be singer bashing around in her sense of self-worthlessness.

Their habitual pattern of behavior – the characters are well aware of it – throws conversation into full throttle. For them, a simple sentence can be a call to arms and a complex one is a nuclear threat. At their peak in aggressive interchange, they all talk at high volume and at the same time, and maybe about nothing that deserves a hint of passion.

It’s weirdly wonderful to witness these exchanges – for us, but not for a third sibling in this family. He’s a deaf son just out of college (played by Tad Cooley, an actor who has been losing his hearing in real life). He’s a great lip-reader, trained from childhood. But whose lips do you read when four sets of them are flapping at once? He’s an adapter, at peace with his kin – and greatly loved by them all, probably for his quiet intelligence, something that remains alien to them along with deafness.

And then he meets Sylvia (Amanda Kearns) at a party of deaf young adults, one of his first dips into what’s called Deaf Culture — deaf people who bind together like an ethnic group with related beliefs. He’s new to this culture because he was essentially raised as a hearing child. Sylvia’s not new to it because her parents are deaf, and she’s always communicated in sign language. Now, her own degenerative condition makes it ever harder for her to hear.

Their romantic alliance upsets the family’s awkward equilibrium – they’re all pretty much a mess and their young son, unlike them and unable to compete in their ways, is facing an obviously happier life. All of a sudden, the words they say to him and to Sylvia have new ramifications, and when he chooses to say words in his own new-found way, it’s a crisis.

The production is boosted by the work of dialect coach Melanie Julian, who’s tinged the words from these actors with colorful, understandable British hues. Narelle Sissons’ home-interior set comes at you like the family itself: bold and untidy and filled to overflowing with words – in this case, books. A pity, though, that no separate space is left for two scenes that take place elsewhere – one at the Deaf Culture party, another at the apartment of the smitten couple. Both scenes would pack additional oomph if they were completely disconnected from the family home, which shows clearly in the background.

Still, this “Tribes” comes at you with great power, a superbly rendered version of the smartest new play I’ve seen in years. By the very last seconds, when words are overwhelmed by a primal and silent communication, we ourselves are speechless._

“Tribes,” produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Feb. 23 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. 215-985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

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