Tribes was very high on histrionics, but managed to bring a very important issue to the fore. Barring some lulls here and there, the first bit of the play is a diatribe between its principle characters. While I can venture some conjecture at why the writer used this tool, I couldn’t say that I heard much more than a lot of noise in the first forty odd minutes.
We are introduced to this family of intellectuals, where banter and constant tirades are the preferred manner of family communication. Everyone is effortlessly pushed to condescension, judgment and borderline spite towards one another. All this is only verbal of course, for they seem to love each other in the end.
Actor Greg Ellwand plays the father Christopher, elitist academic, prone to constant demonstration of intellectual superiority and unaffected by his unabashed disdain of two of his three children. His wife Beth (Toni Ellwand) is a late bloomer and has recently decided to try a hand at detective fiction writing. She gets a lot of ‘constructive feedback’ from her husband, while her tolerance for it is nonexistent. The daughter Ruth (Lisa Norton) is a struggling singer who has chanced upon a few gigs sporadically, but her single status is the greater bane of her existence. One of the two sons, Daniel (Daniel Brochu) has decided to move back home. He suffers from aimless career prospects and another broken relationship. Christopher obviously is horrified at the idea that his kids have moved back home and he doesn’t spare an opportunity to verbalize that they are unwanted in his household. And finally, we have Billy (played by debutante actor Jack Volpe) who plays his real life disability through his character in the play. Deaf by birth and raised in hearing family, Tribes draws on Volpe’s life. Billy is depicted as the kid of the family, doted on by everyone, while he constantly struggles to keep pace with the words that fly between the rest of them, trying to find sense and some collective meaning to them.
The problem with the play is that for a large portion of its first part, there is little that the author does to flesh out characters or to build a narrative that would help the audience find some resonance with either the characters or the story in general. A lot of loud and mindless banter confuses the narrative, makes for sporadic laughter, but provides no real meat to the story.
The narrative picks up when Billy meets Sylvia (Andrea Runge). Sylvia is slowly going deaf and in Billy finds a partner to share her struggles with. Billy for his part is able to experience the true nature of living like someone with his disability. Sylvia introduces him to the normal of ‘Sign’, something Billy didn’t find in his family growing up. He is also introduced to a community of people which opens a world to him that he was shielded from all his life.
Sylvia comes visiting and Beth the doting mother puts on her best show and constantly tries to keep Christopher’s condescending rants at bay. Ruth shows genuine interest in her brother’s new love, yet continues to tend to her wounds of realizing that her singing and her love life aren’t going anywhere. Daniel fights bouts of jealousy, how his deaf kid brother ended up finding love, while he is left with little to show for. Daniel oversteps the bounds of his relationship with Billy and shakes its core, as he caves and makes a move on Sylvia. Sylvia for her part brings to this group the realities of living the life of someone who will lose her ability to hear, something that separates her from Billy, as he doesn’t know what he lost.
After the meeting, the play gathers sudden pace and in the span of twenty odd minutes the dramatic point is hit and Billy confronts the family with an announcement. He charges them with lack of empathy, their basic lack of understanding of him and his disability. Their attempts to raise him ‘normal’ went against the basic principle of thinking of the one in need. They only wanted to normalize him into the majority.
While not ill intended on their part (perhaps), the family is left in tatters as Billy leaves them to be with his new found normal. The biggest victim of this is Daniel, who feels his brother’s absence and falls deeper into his world of delusions. The resolution that follows this is also sudden and doesn’t really see the narrative in its full evolution.
The positive of the play is that it brings to the fore the realities of being deaf, its socialization, types (at birth, later in life deafness) etc., and the community of people that exist, thrive and though invisible, have a voice. I haven’t seen this issue talked about at all and this is where the play scores high marks.
It was hard to decipher acting talents, given that most of it was beset with rhetorical (uniform) styles, but the inclusion of signing, as a tool to take the narrative forward is done fluidly. Billy is able to flex his acting muscle and scores high when he confronts the family. The movement of props on stage between scenes was a huge distraction and completely unnecessary. The stage design is glossy, but the absence of furniture, fancy china, drapes and the like would have left the play untouched. Material affluence can be shown in so many ways and in this case it was left to the material.
The play speaks to an important issue, a very under-represented group of people, whether in the arts or popular culture in general. If you look past the confused and under-developed narrative, you can find some thought provoking ideas that perhaps are meant to stir our normativity.
Tribes runs at the Segal Centre (5170 Cote St Catherine) until December 20, 2015. $24-59. Tickets HERE.