Sunday, February 26, 2012

Between Empathy and Experience

Tribes, a new play by Nina Raine, asks hard questions about stigmatized identities and minority communities. The London production won an Offie Award and was also nominated for both Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for best new play. A new production opened on February 16 in Barrow Street Theater, New York City. It is acted by an all-American cast and directed by David Cromer whose production of Our Town last season won acclaim.

Billy (Russell Harvard), who is deaf from birth, lives with a family that has tried to treat him as if he has no hearing defect. He speaks to them using his own voice and understands them by lip-reading. He does not know sign language. Things change when he meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), who grew up in a deaf household and has lived mostly within the deaf community. She is not deaf but is becoming so. They fall in love and upon her encouragement he took up the job of transcribing criminal suspects to aid their prosecution.

Newly independent, Billy decides to leave home after an acrimonious quarrel during which he accuses his family of never really trying to reach out to him. The father Daniel (Will Brill) is apoplectic about Billy going over to "the other side." The mother Ruth (Gayle Rankin) is more sympathetic but bewildered by the accusations. The brother Christopher (Jeff Perry), who is becoming psychotic, pleads with Billy to stay for he needs him to be the disabled one of the family. The sister Beth (Mare Winningham)... well, it is not clear what she thinks, for she gets rather shunted to the side as the play progresses.

The production last night still felt rather raw. The actors were not inhabiting their roles fully, and so appeared rather one-dimensional, in particular, Will Brill playing the father. The scenes were not shaped as effectively as they could have been. Some of the problem might be attributable to the script, but a challenging script requires an even firmer directorial hand. The scene in which Billy brought Sylvia home to meet the family showed such a hand. The hard-edged banter was well-paced. Most affecting was the end of that scene when Sylvia played on the family piano but could no longer hear what she was playing. It brought home what she insisted on, against political correctness, that deafness is a handicap in a hearing world.

The play resonates, as it is intended to, beyond the deaf/hearing divide. When Billy learns sign language, joining the deaf community and distancing himself from his non-signing family, Daniel, his father, compares his newfound ability to coming out as gay and wearing a burka. What the stigmatized minority sees as essential solidarity, the majority sees as willful separation. It is a gap that empathy can only partially fill. Or, more precisely, the gap measures the difference between empathy and experience.

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