ORLANDO — Playwright Nina Raine’s piece “Tribes,” now being performed at Mad Cow Theatre, opens in a rather grating way, with a family in London that has a passion for loudly tossing out an endless series of insults, sarcastic remarks, and vulgarities at one another.
Seated at the dinner table, and led by the father, Christopher — who presents a constant air of smug superiority – the family appears so annoying at first that you might feel tempted to leave, thinking this is one bundle of dirty family laundry that you don’t want to eavesdrop on.
What catches your attention, though, is the youngest son, Billy, who sits quietly at the table and never says a word. He watches his family, but at times he has a quizzical expression on his face, almost as if the others were speaking in a foreign language that he didn’t understand.
Billy eventually leaves the apartment, and takes refuge at an art exhibit, where he meets Sylvia, an attractive young woman. It’s then we learn that the exhibit is by an artist who is deaf – and so is Billy. Sylvia, who is not deaf but is the child of deaf parents, begins to communicate with Billy in sign language.
But there’s a problem: Billy doesn’t understand sign language. He reads lips instead. He begins a relationship with Sylvia, who not only teaches sign language to Billy, but, more importantly, acknowledges that she is going deaf herself.
“Tribes” follows Billy’s journey into the world he never knew growing up: being part of a minority group united, in this case, by their disability — as well as, in Sylvia’s case, the challenge of fitting in. Losing her hearing becomes increasing difficult and depressing for Sylvia, but ironically she doesn’t find a sympathetic understanding from London’s deaf community, which urges her to embrace her disability and not feel sorry for herself. That turns out to be harder than she had expected.
It’s equally difficult when Billy’s talent for lip-reading lands him a job with the local courts, reading the lips of criminal defendants. At first, he does so well that he becomes the subject of a newspaper article; but eventually it turns tragic for Billy.
“Tribes” is in many ways a journey and search for identity and self-worth. For all of his arrogance and bluster, Christopher makes it clear that he decided not to have Billy learn sign language because he did not want him to simply become part of a minority group – something that the family, a Jewish one, is already sensitive about. Christopher wants his deaf son to blend in with everyone else.
But the rest of the family – mother Beth, sister Ruth and brother Daniel – are on a seemingly uphill search for happiness. Beth is hoping to be a great mystery novelist, but struggles to complete her book. Ruth dreams of being a great opera singer but feels depressed that the best she has been able to accomplish is a role in the chorus, and she’s even more devastated when Billy gets the newspaper write-up. She’s vain, and not ashamed to admit it.
Then there’s Daniel, who is sarcastic and caustic to everyone – and his sour attitude seems in part a reaction to the voices he hears in his head that leave him depressed and bitter.
It’s not all surprising that Billy feels like the world of the deaf and its communicating through sign language provide him with a exit strategy from this difficult environment. But even after getting an apartment with Sylvia, he startles the family by making a radical announcement.
“Tribes” is an alternating funny, touching, sometimes exasperating and finally deeply moving play about our eternal search to discover who we really are — and where we belong. Mad Cow provides the show with their usual expert professionalism, including use of subtitles as Billy and Sylvia communicate in sign language – and sometimes the absence of subtitles that add an great air of mystery to the proceedings.
While the entire cast is excellent, Peter Travis as the acidic Daniel, who has a tender side that he struggles to bury, and Britt Michael Gordon as Billy, are exceptionally good – and it’s fitting that they provide the show with its heart-tugging final moment. Gordon does a superb job capturing the essence of a young man who doesn’t feel like he fits in with his tribe — and has a euphoric awakening on his search for his own identity.
“Tribes” is being performed now through Sept. 20 at the theater at 54 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $36.75.
Call 407-297-8788 for tickets and reservations.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..