Sunday, February 16, 2014

Powerful Commentary of 'Tribes' is Well-Heard, Though Steppenwolf Run Can No Longer Be Seen -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A play by Nina Raine
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Run ended

I can't recommend that you go see the production of Tribes at Chicago's typically terrific Steppenwolf Theatre.

This isn't to imply that I didn't like Nina Raine's thought-providing play, which weaves a variety of themes around a hyper-literate British family whose three grown children include a deaf son, portrayed by an actor who is hearing-impaired.

While the family--and particularly patriarch Christopher (the always excellent Francis Guinan)--is so self-righteously smug as to make the drama acutely off-putting early on, in its entirety Tribes is quite estimable and worthwhile.

But while I was intrigued enough by Chris Jones' stellar Tribune review to want to see Tribes since it opened in mid-December, a variety of conflicts--including the malice of Mother Nature--precluded me from getting to it until Saturday...the last day of its run.

So I am not being derisive when I say that I can't recommend that you see it at Steppenwolf, just factual.

Hence, there isn't much need to prolong this review. But as the relatively recently hatched Tribes--it debuted in London in late 2010--is likely to wander its way through local theaters around the world for the foreseeable future, I will suggest that while it may be a bit shy of a masterpiece or "must see," for a reasonable price the play should be worth anyone's while.

Particularly if you can see it with the type of scenery that Steppenwolf employed (a multi-level house reminiscent of the theater's premiere of August: Osage County) and a terrific cast, as was the case here.

Though it felt a bit strange to hear Guinan adopt a British accent to play a character that felt like a more educated and snootier version of Archie Bunker, the erstwhile Steppenwolf ensemble member pulled off a challenging role. Another ensemble member, Molly Regan, was also very good, if a bit too shrill at times for my tastes.

And first-rate were all four actors playing the next generation, with Daniel (Steve Haggard), Ruth (Helen Sadler) and Billy (Garrett Zuercher at the performance I saw) being grown children who have returned to live at the family's home while struggling with a sense of place, purpose, parental approval and their own particular issues.

Billy is deaf and has been raised to lip-read and speak, rather than use sign-language. While the play begins with just the family members profanely and profusely berating each other, it gets much more interesting when Billy falls in love with Sylvia (wonderfully played by ensemble Alana Arenas), the daughter of deaf parents who has been gradually losing her own hearing.

Though the family--particularly Christopher--never references Sylvia being black, they nonetheless demonstrate their "tribalism," bigotry and intolerance by ruthlessly deriding her use of sign-language, which Billy chooses to adopt.

With hopes that some may get a chance to see Tribes, outside Chicago or somewhere down the road, I won't go further into storyline specifics. But with my take on it aided by a post-show discussion, despite the ugliness--if not outright malevolence--of Christopher's character, I came to appreciate the way Tribes broaches on family dynamics, struggles of grown children to find their way in the world and the use of language (including among those who use non-verbal communication).

And with impressive work by Garrett Zuercher, a deaf actor playing the role handled by John McGinty for most of the run (the latter is pictured with Arenas in the photo at right), Tribes does a great job of individualizing those who are hard of hearing.

I can't say I've ever given much consideration to the differences in perspective between those who were born deaf versus those who lose their hearing, or how, why and to what effect some sign and some don't. But the play smartly informs how there are varying levels of hierarchy and acceptance within the "deaf community," with clear similarities to other groups of people with certain similarities but many more unique differences.

So if you have seen Tribes, I would be happy to discuss it. And if you didn't catch it at Steppenwolf, while I don't think you need to kick yourself, there is an argument to be made--and this show is full of them--for at some point appreciating what it has to say.

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