Family can be another word for belonging or exclusion, depending on one's point of view in "Tribes," Nina Raines' entertaining play of extraordinary perception. In this case, that ever-changing perspective is illuminated through the eyes of a young man who is deaf, but he represents any family member who thinks he or she is misunderstood.
Billy's deafness gives sharp focus to the concept of someone desperate to be heard but having his attempts to communicate fall on deaf ears.
It's too easy to fall back on flippant phrases to describe "Tribes" -- Is anybody listening? Here's looking at you, kid. ... The play itself begins with so many one-liners that punch lines were lost in laughter during Friday's opening at City Theatre. But this is a work that demands to be taken seriously as well, particularly when a newcomer's arrival forces a change in relationships all around.
"Tribes" features an eccentric British family and accents are employed, but this could be any family, anywhere. The "August: Osage County" clan, for example, could give Christopher, Beth and their three adult children a run for their money. These folks are too clever by far in their turn of phrase, quick to criticize, easy with an obscenity and obstinately un-pc. And they derive pleasure from all of the above.
That is, except for Billy, the youngest member of the family. He has been deaf since birth and brought up in the embrace of this kooky group, taught to lip-read and speak and thereby function in their world.
Crusty dad Christopher (John Judd), who leans alternately toward adoring or cruel, has issues with the concept of a nonhearing community, "a cult" that he fears might alienate his son from the family.
Simmering just below the surface are more issues upon issues, witnessed with laser-sharp observation by Billy, played by Tad Cooley in a wrenching portrayal. When we meet Billy, he's rarely in on the joke, but he is first to notice when "Dan is upset," even if no one else can grasp older brother Daniel's distress.
Daniel alone leans on Billy for the peace and understanding he can't seem to find in anyone else. As Billy moves toward a new world view, big brother is falling apart. Alex Hoeffler has perhaps the most difficult role as Daniel, who ping-pongs between annoying and pathetic. He's the one family member who values -- needs -- Billy's wisdom.
Daniel has returned home after a breakup, jobless, while trying to write a thesis on why language is worthless. His father, meanwhile, espouses that without words, how can you express feelings? Mom Beth (Laurie Klatscher) is busy writing a detective novel, and middle child Ruth (Robin Abramson), who wants to be an opera singer, wonders if she will ever find her voice.
Seated at the table in Act I, Billy is just back from university, but nothing has changed. What he wants most is to be in on the joke instead of being stuck on the fringes of the family island of unconventionality. This group works hard -- a bit too hard -- to be outrageous.
Into the madness comes Sylvia, born to deaf parents and losing her hearing. Fluent in sign language, she works as an events planner in the deaf community and enthralls Billy at first sight. She teaches him sign language and introduces him to a group where for the first time he feels he belongs, even as Sylvia is growing restless and dreading her loss of hearing.
Amanda Kearns is a force of nature as Sylvia, the most relatable character in the play. She acts as our eyes and ears into the insular world of Billy's family as she and this naive boy do their own dance of falling in love and finding if that's enough to keep them together.
Ms. Kearns comes from the eastern part of the state in this joint production with the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The busy, vertical set, with its shelves upon shelves of books, includes a central spot for projections that translate what Billy and Sylvia are saying when they sign and others get a taste of what Billy feels when they turn so that he can't lip-read.
"Tribes" piles on emotional upheavals in the second act, all handled with such care by the cast and director Stuart Carden, that intentions are never in doubt.
Ms. Raines is adept at having the audience choose and change sides at a near breakneck pace. This outwardly quirky family is a lot like any other, each in his own way clawing to be heard above the fray, but fighting hardest to hold onto love.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.