This is the house that Christopher and Beth have built. It is propped up by words — literally. Within a large room encased in floor-to-ceiling books, Christopher, Beth and two of their children fire words at each other in a constant din of acidic criticism, intellectual arrogance and self aggrandizement.
Billy, the youngest child, is left out. He is deaf and only by reading lips can he get a sense of the scabrous cacophony that passes for family chatter.
Nina Raine’s play, “Tribes,” finds in Billy an avatar to consider the questions of identity, isolation, the myriad facets of communication and the inadequacy of our verbal constructions to convey emotional depth.
Wendy Goldberg’s fine production opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater; but for some plot-driven detours in the second act, Raine’s work provides lots to chew on.
Billy (John McGinty) was never taught sign language. Better, his parents thought, to “mainstream” him and force him to read lips.
Christopher (Stephen Schnetzer) spares no sympathy in denying Billy the shibboleth of deaf culture. “Making deafness the center of your identity is the beginning of the end,” he bellows in decrying the hierarchy and insularity of the deaf.
Beth (Sally Wingert) natters with good intentions and a kinder heart but she too can’t be bothered with the effort to bring sign language into the home.
Oldest son Daniel (Hugh Kennedy) is writing a thesis on communication and is infected with the same withering criticism he gets from his father. Sister Ruth (Anna Reichert) has chosen the language of opera singing, but has little success to show.
Into this unhappy stew comes Sylvia (Tracey Maloney), child of deaf parents and who herself is losing her hearing. She knows how to sign and after a chance meeting, she teaches Billy. Suddenly, the lad has found his voice and it is silent. There is life outside the hollow ring of a bombastic, oppressive family.
Raine’s second act twists through moments of highly dramatic and trenchant confrontation, but it also heads toward resolution with a clunky uncertainty.
Leave it at that, because the play’s overall effect — and Goldberg’s staging on Alexander Dodge’s immense and book-filled set — surfaces terrific human stuff. Schnetzer provides a blunt and profane portrait of a father who is borderline unfit (But funny! Really funny). Wingert finds the contradictions that frustrate Beth’s inability to rise above this dysfunctional home (which she helped create). Kennedy’s Daniel is both lout and fractured child in a sharply observed portrayal. Reichert labors a bit to keep up in a role that’s just off the main action.
McGinty and Maloney stand at the center with performances that show how deeply Billy and Sylvia are torn by their dueling identities and a growing sense of isolation. McGinty has a fierce emotional well beneath his cheerful visage.
Maloney accomplishes that very difficult task of finding strength in fragility. Together, they inhabit a single hope — vague as that is.
The Guthrie production uses surtitles and captioning, so it is fully accessible. That’s good because “Tribes” deserves to be seen and understood by both deaf and hearing cultures.