In Nina Raine’s Off Broadway drama Tribes, now playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, Billy (Russell Harvard), a profoundly deaf man in his early 20s, has grown up in a hearing family without ever learning to sign. His father, Christopher (Jeff Perry), a former professor, views sign language as a form of marginalization and conformity. Instead, Billy has adapted to hearing culture, learning to speak and lip-read with remarkable proficiency. But in the interest of treating him normally, his highly verbal, overeducated family largely excludes Billy from their constant debates and arguments. His older siblings, Daniel and Ruth, who have recently returned home to live, viciously attack each other over their failed relationships and middling intellectual and creative pursuits — Daniel is writing a thesis; Ruth is trying to be a singer — and Billy is left to play the role of the simple, sweet-natured child, the one everyone loves most.
Then Billy falls in love with a young woman named Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), the daughter of deaf parents who is going deaf herself. She teaches him sign language and introduces him to ”the deaf community,” a group his family has actively kept him away from all his life. Newly empowered, Billy begins to realize the ways in which his family members have isolated him by choosing to ignore his disability. He leaves them, gets a job as a lip-reader for the police, and moves in with Sylvia. But friction builds between the young couple — Billy is just starting to embrace his identity as a deaf, signing man, while Sylvia struggles to hold on to the parts of her identity that are not defined by her disability.
Two scenes stand out as dramatic set pieces, showcasing incisive writing and superb acting. The first occurs when Billy brings Sylvia to meet his family for the first time: Christopher grills Sylvia on the limitations of sign language, revealing that his objection to it may be rooted more in prejudice than in his son’s best interest. The second comes when Billy cuts ties with his family, devastating in particular his troubled brother, Daniel, and his sympathetic mother, Beth (Mare Winningham).
There isn’t a weak performance in the bunch. Harvard, who is deaf himself, keeps Billy at the emotional center of the play, even though Pourfar steals a number of scenes as she expresses the particular sadness of losing an ability she’s always had. David Cromer’s direction cleverly highlights the provocative questions of communication that the play brings up; subtitles, projected on various parts of the set, translate language that is signed, difficult to understand, or unspoken.
The narrative goes off the rails a bit in the second act — namely, a subplot involving a scandal at Billy’s job feels forced and unnecessary — but the bravura performances and Raine’s razor-sharp, deeply compassionate script thoroughly make up for any of Tribes’ shortcomings. A?
(Tickets: 212-868-4444 or barrowstreettheatre.com)