Listen Up: Berkeley Rep Sounds Off on Deaf Culture and Family Dysfunction

Words are everywhere and nowhere in Berkeley Rep’s Tribes.

Bound in the books spilling off scenic designer Todd Rosenthal‘s towering bookshelves, splashing themselves in subtitles across the set, pouring out in a cacophony from the verbose British family around which the play revolves, and dancing in the ballerina-like gestures of American Sign Language, words almost seem to be playwright Nina Raine‘s main character. But in a play about hearing, it is the conversational silences — gaping misunderstandings or refusals to listen — that demand attention.

Tribes‘ linchpin is Billy, a deaf young man raised in a hearing family and taught to lip-read. Smothered by their constant arguing, he is resigned to being largely ignored, until he meets Sylvia, a woman raised by deaf parents who is losing her hearing. Sylvia teaches him to sign (captions appearing as the actors sign) and the breech — an affront to his domineering father’s scathing dismissal of sign language as “broken English” — disrupts the family. Billy’s father, Christopher, speaks only in outbursts. Criticisms fall like torrential rain on two of his three children: His daughter Ruth’s love interest is soft as a bagel; his older son Daniel’s girlfriend “has the charisma of a bus shelter.” Ruth and Daniel, in turn, are deaf to their own snarky, competitive exchanges involving her operatic aspirations and his unfinished academic thesis. Beth, their mother, protests against the bickering, but her objections are muted by sexual chemistry with her husband and the distracting mystery novel she’s perpetually writing.


– This is a fantastic play – don’t miss it!


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