In Nina Raine’s moving screwball tragedy Tribes, directed by David Cromer at the Barrow Street Theatre, the lives of a (shockingly surnameless) eccentric family have crashed in on one another. All three adult children live at home, two of them underemployed dilettantes. The third, Billy (Russell Harvard), is a deaf young man mainstreamed by his hardheaded parents—who haven’t mainstreamed him enough to leave the nest. With Hitchens-like acrimony, his crotchety retired professor father, Christopher (Jeff Perry), has kept him from learning sign language. Instead, Billy reads lips, and quite proficiently—he has to keep up with his family.
Billy strikes up a romance with Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), a hearing girl who is going deaf because of a hereditary disease; she was raised by deaf parents. She teaches him to sign and connects him with the deaf community, which alienates Billy from his family. (Though ironically, when he confronts them, his righteous indignance makes him seem more like them.) The narrative thrust of Tribes gets a tad predictable, but Raine intelligently explores language and disability in the process. Everyone has a foil, every arc has a counterargument, and easy answers never fall from the sky. Billy has never heard, but his brother Daniel (Will Brill) starts to hear voices in his head (especially Christopher’s), which probably indicate the onset of schizophrenia. As Sylvia and Billy become more intimate, she rejects deaf society and bewails her hearing loss. In the tense climax, Billy rejects both speech and his parents—to their faces—as Sylvia translates his sign language. By the bittersweet end, Raine has shown us the many ways in which humans are deaf whether or not they can hear.