Actors Tracey Maloney and John McGinty have dealt with language challenges as they rehearsed “Tribes,” the play by Nina Raine that opens Friday at the Guthrie.
Maloney has spent most of her summer and fall learning American Sign Language, which she uses for a character who is going deaf. McGinty, a deaf actor, is learning how to speak in a British accent.
“Tribes” takes place in England. McGinty plays Billy, a deaf man who has to speak because his loud family has never bothered to learn sign language. He finds a soul mate in Maloney’s character, Sylvia, who has deaf parents and introduces Billy to signing. Ironically, that is the reverse of their real-life situation.
“It’s been humbling because in the play I’m supposed to be fluent,” Maloney said. “It’s intimidating to get everything right. When I was practicing, I think I introduced my husband as my wife.”
McGinty, who conducted his interview through a sign interpreter, said, “I have to give Tracey a lot of credit.”
Language is an intrinsic piece of a culture, just as customs and the arts are. “Tribes,” which is directed by Wendy Goldberg (last at the Guthrie with “Dollhouse”), attempts to get at nuance and texture that goes beyond a mere means of communication. Lines that are in American Sign Language will be displayed in superscripts. The production includes familiar Guthrie faces Sally Wingert, Hugh Kennedy and Anna Reichert in addition to Stephen Schnetzer, best known for soap opera roles and a Broadway turn in Edward Albee’s “The Goat.”
McGinty’s character, Billy, is an outsider in his own family, which helps to explain the strong bond that develops when he meets Sylvia. Because his parents never learned sign language, neither has Billy. He has to learn it from Sylvia.
“There is a crossing of cultural experiences,” McGinty said. “We both have difficult worlds that we are trying to escape and find some fulfillment.”
“They need each other,” Maloney said.
McGinty was raised in Cleveland and got interested in theater while in middle school. As an aside, he said he’s enjoying being in Minneapolis, which reminds him of his Midwest roots.
He studied finance at Northeastern University in Boston and then sought to combine his interests in pursuing arts administration as a grad student at New York University. He mentions Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp as actors from whom he drew inspiration.
“Johnny Depp especially is a transformational actor,” McGinty said. “Every movie I’ve seen him in, from the beginning to the end he is the character through and through.”
Maloney spent her summer learning American Sign Language, first in a community class and then with a tutor. Rehearsing with McGinty allowed her to fine-tune her work.
Just as speakers connote different emotions or intentions with their voice, sign language is more than a rote translation of words. In the interview, Maloney and McGinty talked about a scene they had worked on and how many ways there are to sign the word “sad” or the subtleties between “bluffing” and “lying.” Or, how do you suggest ambiguity or sarcasm — spins that we put on words with certain tonalities?
McGinty noted another interesting variance — just as regional accents vary, signs are different in New York from how they are in the Midwest for certain words.
“Tribes” was nominated for a British Olivier Award for best play in 2010, before it moved to New York. It won the 2012 Drama Desk honor and has since been done in several regional theaters. Following the Guthrie run, McGinty will play the role of Billy in a production at Steppenwolf in Chicago.
The dramatic question posed in the play is for Billy and Sylvia, in terms of how they will define themselves.
“For me, I hope the big question that audiences will walk away asking themselves is, ‘What would I do?’ ” McGinty said. “What’s right, or what’s wrong for these situations?”