AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Nina Raine
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Thrust Stage
2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA / (510) 647-2949

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Deaf from birth, a young English man born into a hearing family has become skilled at reading lips. A young woman, who could hear when she was born into a deaf family and has learned sign language, is losing her hearing.

Their differing backgrounds and abilities form the essential conflict in Nina Raine's sometimes amusing "Tribes," presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

When they become romantically involved, Sylvia (Nell Geisslinger) teaches Billy (James Caverly) sign language. He then insists that he and his family communicate that way only, much to their dismay.

His family is a loud, expletive-prone, dysfunctional group presided over by his pompously intellectual father, Christopher (Paul Whitworth), and his mother, Beth (Anita Carey), a would-be writer. Like Billy, their other two adult children, Daniel (Dan Clegg) and Ruth (Elizabeth Morton), still live at home, unable to get on with their lives. Daniel has mental health issues, while Ruth aspires to be an opera singer until she hears a recording of herself singing.

The play's title, "Tribes," comes from the hierarchical nature of the community of the Deaf (capitalized in the members' preferred style), depending on whether one was born deaf or became deaf and whether one's parents were deaf or hearing. Signing and lip reading are other factors.

No matter how one is classified, however, the community is insular, Sylvia complains. Although she had been comfortable in it, she's having doubts just as her hearing loss is worsening.

Although the concept is intriguing and worthy of consideration, it's difficult to care about any of the characters except Billy and Sylvia. Christopher, the father, is too blustery and critical. Daniel, whose problems manifest themselves in hearing voices and stuttering, is dependent on Billy and doesn't want him to leave. Ruth is a cipher who complains a lot and fights with Daniel. Beth, the mother, tries to be a peacekeeper, but she's an enabler, too.

Some plot threads go nowhere. One of the lesser ones is what has happened to the boyfriend that Sylvia had when she and Billy met. The more glaring one comes after Billy gets a job as an expert witness who reads lips in videos involving criminal cases and his employer discovers that he invented some dialogue.

California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone has a good cast, but he needs to exercise a firmer hand on the scenes involving Christopher and sometimes Daniel, who can become manic.

Caverly, who is involved with the National Theatre of the Deaf, has played the role of Billy elsewhere and does a terrific job, especially with his concentration in watching others speak and with his speech, which is generally clear.

Geisslinger has a strong stage presence and convincingly embodies Sylvia's conflicted emotions as her hearing dwindles. Todd Rosenthal's set features floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books, indicative of the family's academic bent. Lighting by Christopher Akerlind, sound by Jake Rodriguez and costumes by Meg Neville enhance the production.

"Tribes" has been a hit at theaters in England and the United States, and Berkeley Rep's opening night audience gave it a rousing ovation. Nevertheless, it's not entirely satisfying.

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