Stage preview: Acclaimed 'Tribes' comes to City Theatre as a powerful drama about family communication

Acclaimed 'Tribes' comes to City Theatre as a powerful drama about family communication

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Billy has kept quiet long enough. His kooky family, led by an overbearing patriarch, doesn't pay much attention to the deaf son and brother and expert lip reader. But now Billy has met Sylvia, who is losing her hearing, and he's ready to tell everyone what's what.

The question is, are they ready to listen?

"Tribes" gathers a full menu of issues for the dinner-as-battleground play by Nina Raines: idiosyncratic family dynamics, certainly. Communication? A main course. And what makes a community -- or in this case, a tribe -- might be the most telling of all.


Where: City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

When: Through March 30. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; plus 1 p.m. March 19 and 26; no evening performance March 26.

Tickets: $35-$55; 412-431-CITY (2489) or citytheatre­

Through Sylvia, the daughter of deaf parents, Billy has learned sign language and been exposed to the greater community of people like himself. Now he's bringing her home as his fiancee, into an environment where intellect is valued above all (note all the books on the set) and dialogue is more like debate.

Texas native Tad Cooley, 20, who has slowly been losing his hearing since childhood, plays Billy in the joint production that comes to City Theatre after a run at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

When he heard about the play, he knew he had to do it.

"Have to, have to," was his reaction, he said while sitting in the City lounge on a cold and sunny South Side day.

"I was in my first play ['Act Normal'] where I played a deaf character, in Manhattan in this tiny production, and the guy who directed it, he learned more about me and where I came from, and he was like, 'You're perfect for this play 'Tribes.' And I was like, 'Why? I'm not a Comanche -- I was thinking it was Native American or an African play -- and he was, 'No!' He told me what it was about, and it was, 'Oh my God! That's me.' "

Mr. Cooley asked his agent to pursue "Tribes," which was then hitting regional theaters after big successes in London and off-Broadway. It was nominated for an Olivier Award for best play after it debuted in London in 2011. It opened at New York's Barrow Street Theatre the following year and won the Drama Desk Award as outstanding play. David Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of the City-Philly production, " 'Tribes' is one of the more unexpectedly powerful family dramas to arrive in recent years."

Director Stuart Carden, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate and former associate artistic director at City, said Mr. Cooley "wowed me" when they met following a video audition.

"Tad is an astonishing actor who happens to be profoundly hard of hearing," Mr. Carden recalled. "He had mono, I think he had Lyme disease. He had to ask to sit down during the audition. ... You should have him tell you the story."

"It happened to be after I had strep, mono and was exposed to Lyme disease," said Mr. Cooley, who was recuperating at home in Victoria, Texas, when he received a good news-bad news call from his agent. Good: He had a call-back. Bad: It was in New York within a few days, and it was a must.

"I was like, OK, I'm doomed," Mr. Cooley recalled. "And the next day we went to the doctor, and he said if I'm able physically and up to it -- I might have lied saying yes, I was -- and I went. I got there early and I fell asleep by the door. Someone tapped my shoulder and said, 'Come audition.' I'm so happy to tell the story now, because I'm here."

Along with finding his Billy, Mr. Carden has gathered a cast from near and far: local Pittsburgh actresses Laurie Klatscher and Robin Abramson, both Post-Gazette Performers of the Year; John Judd from Chicago, where Mr. Carden is associate artistic director of Writers Theatre; Philadelphia actress Amanda Kearns; and Alex Hoeffler, a New Yorker by way of Texas.

The company has formed a close-knit family.

"Having Tad share his real-life experience was so crucial to creating this family dynamic authentically -- how they give him their face [to lip read], when they choose not to so it all lands in a real way in the moment, but also in a way that is true to a family that has been doing this for 20 years," the director said.

Mr. Cooley noted that at one point in the play, Billy says that he can read lips in quarter- and half-profile position, and so can the actor, depending on the dialect. He is still seeing rheumatologists and other doctors who have yet to determine why he is losing his hearing; he is deaf in his right ear and has 40 percent hearing in his left.

Mr. Carden, who was experiencing the polar vortex at home in Chicago between the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh productions when he was interviewed by phone, said he couldn't wait to introduce "Tribes" to audiences at City, where he last directed "Mary's Wedding" in 2009. That play helped Ms. Abramson earn PG Performer of the Year.

"Tribes" is a work that has several juicy roles, such as the father, Christopher, whose role at the table may remind movie- and theatergoers of the crazy goings-on in "August: Osage County."

Besides geography and serving several bosses in a joint production, pulling in actors from different cities was perhaps the biggest challenge in getting "Tribes" to the South Side. During the rehearsal process, an interpreter helped Mr. Cooley keep up with what was going on as director and actors moved throughout the space, but the group has embraced each other.

Mr. Cooley, who is experiencing Pittsburgh for the first time, said he was looking forward to a tour of Carnegie Mellon with Greg Lehane, an actor, director and professor who also is the husband of Ms. Klatscher, who portrays Billy's mother in "Tribes."

"The first time all of these actors were in the room together, with the family dynamics, it's a terrifying moment with this particular play," Mr. Carden said. "Then there are the vulnerabilities that Tad would be bringing into the room. I don't mean his hearing, which has its own challenges, but his real-life experience. ... But they bonded very quickly and have said repeatedly, in one way or another, it's one of the most rewarding experiences each one of them has had in the theater."

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