The Pear explores communication complexities in “Tribes”

pear-tribes-sylvia-billyBy Ande Jacobson

The Pear makes quite a statement with its current production of Tribes, by Nina Raine. Humans are by nature tribal, i.e., as a species, we tend to gather based on some kind of commonality. That commonality can be defined in many ways such as being descended from a common ancestor, forming a community of common customs and traditions, following a common leader, or any other distinction that provides a basis for cohesion. Within a given tribe, there’s usually some form of hierarchy, and in modern times, it’s common for someone to belong to a number of tribes.

Raine consolidates several tribes into a single family in the play. First, the family is Jewish (audience members should notice a menorah sitting atop a bookcase upstage right even before lights up). Next, once the play starts, it quickly becomes obvious the family is English. As the verbal exchange continues, we soon discover that this is a family of intellectuals focused on the arts, specifically writers and musicians. The interesting thing is that they are each searching to find their voice, as their communication is surprisingly dysfunctional.

The family patriarch, Christopher (Dan Roach), is the exception. He knows his voice and delights in telling everyone else what’s wrong with theirs. Beth (Jackie O’Keefe) is his wife. She’s the peacemaker and is an aspiring author. Daniel (Jarrod Pirtle) is the eldest son. Initially he’s cocky, a bit sarcastic, and he’s also seeking to be a writer as he pounds ahead on his thesis. Ruth (Kendall Callaghan) is the middle child. She’s an aspiring opera singer, but she doesn’t have confidence in her abilities.

Finally, Billy (Greg Anderson) is the baby of the family, and when we first meet him, he’s not participating in the vigorous dinner argument. There’s a good reason for this; he’s deaf. In a family where communication is so fundamental (no matter how dysfunctional), he is an outsider and hasn’t found his voice, yet. He is a deaf person living in the hearing world, but he’s at a serious disadvantage. His family refuses to either learn sign, or to even allow Billy to do so. He’s been taught to speak and read lips, but that only goes so far.

We soon see that Billy doesn’t fit into the deaf community either when he meets his future girlfriend, Sylvia (Morgan Dayley). They strike an instant rapport, and we discover that up to this point in her life, she’s Billy’s opposite number. She’s the daughter of deaf parents and calls the deaf community home. She was born hearing though genetic roulette has recently started taking that capability from her. While she can “speak” both languages, she’s not very familiar with the customs of the hearing world, and because of the hierarchy within the deaf community, she’s been as much of an outsider there as Billy has been in the hearing community.

We know that Billy’s family is rife with artists from the first scene, but when Billy first introduces Sylvia to his family, we find out that, except for Billy, everyone else in his family also plays the piano (presenting yet another area where Billy can’t participate). In an ironic twist, so does Sylvia.

As the plot evolves, we are treated to a story about love, discovery, and the complexities of language in its various forms. Sylvia introduces Billy to the deaf world and teaches him how to sign. In the “silence” of the unspoken language, Billy begins to find his voice. His attitudes toward communication and his family shift rather radically, but Billy isn’t the only one who experiences self-discovery and learns new things about those he loves.

Director, Troy Johnson, was excited to head this project, even knowing it would be a challenge from the start. First, he needed a deaf actor who could speak clearly on stage and could also sign. In addition to Billy, Sylvia, though played by a hearing actor, also needs to have fluency in sign language. Johnson has a special understanding of the language difficulties surrounding the show as he had previously studied American Sign Language (ASL) with an eye toward becoming an interpreter. While he went a different direction in his career, he retained his appreciation for the language, and for the cultural schism between the hearing and deaf communities.

Anderson came in fluent in ASL, but Dayley didn’t. Anderson’s challenge was clearing up his spoken language, while Dayley’s was learning to sign. Happily, both actors came through with flying colors. Although Anderson is a little hard to understand at times, he’s an extremely expressive actor. Even when some words aren’t completely clear, his expressions and body language speak volumes. Likewise, Dayley can now sign with the best of them.

Anderson has very tight interactions with both Dayley and Pirtle. Anderson and Pirtle have an ease as brothers on stage that’s very believable. At first there’s a playfulness between them. As the tension mounts, Anderson exudes the confidence that Billy is gaining, while Pirtle clearly shows that Daniel is faltering and slipping into a dark place. The evolution of their characters is fascinating to watch, and the final plot resolution hits the right chord. Anderson is also quite good with Dayley as their characters grow ever closer.

The banter between Roach, Callaghan, O’Keefe, and Pirtle is also very believable and rapid fire. Even when Roach accidentally dropped a few lines in one scene on opening night, he stayed in character and pulled it off gracefully.

Norman Beamer’s scenic design is gorgeous. The set has great detail in the family’s combination dining room/living room that takes up the entire stage. The front door is slightly up right. Stairs further up right lead to the unseen bedrooms, and an arch up left leads to the unseen kitchen. A piano up center is a focal point in the story at various times. Two bookcases flank the piano, and the dining room table sits center stage. A flat is moved down right for a few scenes that take place in locations beyond the family home.

The script dictated most of the music choices, mainly classical such as opening the show with sounds of an orchestra tuning and later playing portions of “The Magic Flute”, Handel’s “Messiah”, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and others. David L. Hobbs’ sound design includes a nice combination of licensed recordings along with some locally recorded piano arrangements performed by Matthew Bourne.

Supertitles (or captions) are shown during portions of the sign language used in the production as well as for some of the lyrics during a few of the musical interludes. There is a fair amount of profanity in the dialog, as well as sexual descriptions, so the show may not be appropriate for younger audiences.

While there are a few uncomfortable “silences” when the momentum halts briefly, this story is quite thought provoking, and The Pear brings it life beautifully. Communication is such an important part of our lives, that we sometimes take it for granted. Tribes reminds us that for those we love, we need to be sure that we can communicate, even if that means sometimes learning their “language”.

What: Tribes

Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View, CA 94043

When: Continues through 22 November 2015; Thursdays-Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 2PM.

See http://www.thepear.org or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.

(Photos courtesy of The Pear)

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