Also this past week, I finally took in the Barrow Street Theatre production of Tribes, the play by Nina Raines directed by David Cromer, which I’ve been meaning to see for months (and which you can still catch if you act fast – it’s scheduled to close January 20th). The play is about an intellectually aggressive British family – Dad (Jeff Still) is an academic (his field has something to do with semiotics – not sure if he’s in literature, linguistics or philosophy), Mom (Lee Roy Rogers) is an aspiring novelist, and the kids are screwed up. The daughter, Ruth (Dina Thomas) is trying to turn herself into a singer (one senses this is the latest in a string of enthusiasms) while the elder son, Daniel (Nick Westrate) is once again making a stab at completing his thesis. Neither are particularly employed, and both are living at home, along with the youngest member of the tribe, Billy (Russell Harvard), who is deaf, but who has never been taught to sign, the better to fit in with his (hearing) tribe. The plot revolves around what happens when Billy finally meets a girl, Sylvia (Susannah Flood), and first begins to question what tribe he properly belongs to: his family, or the deaf community.

That doesn’t sound very promising, so let me hasten to say: the play is much better than this description makes it sound, and the production and cast serve the play exceptionally well. The early scenes of the family, of Billy and Sylvia’s meeting, and especially of Sylvia’s tense and fraught introduction to Billy’s family, are exceptionally well-observed. From the very beginning, we see that Billy, by virtue of his temperament but also by virtue of his disability, is the only one in this family who has actually learned how to listen, and the only one who sees the impact that words – quips and charges and insults flung about with abandon by pretty much everybody else in his clan – have on the people he loves. His role is to provide a point of stability, of comfort, particularly to his emotionally and mentally-fragile older brother. And it’s a role he’s pretty comfortable with. Even when Sylvia comes over, and is pretty much attacked by his father, Billy doesn’t come to her defense but reassures her: Dad only does this to people he likes. The intellectual and verbal assault is actually an invitation, odd though it seems, to join the tribe.

The next couple of “turns” in the play are equally well-considered. Sylvia teaches Billy to sign, and he suddenly discovers how much has been denied him. His anger finally, belatedly, comes out, and he rejects his hearing family. But for Sylvia, this is all old hat. She was a hearing child raised by deaf parents, so she has always moved fluidly between the deaf and hearing worlds, and sees the limitations of each – and is particularly conscious of the small-town quality of the deaf world, where you always see the same faces at parties and everybody has already slept with everybody else. As the play opens, though, she’s beginning to lose her hearing, and by the end it’s nearly gone, and she can’t bear the thought that she is about to be trapped in the deaf ghetto. Just as Billy, whom she loves, is in the process of rejecting his family, she tells him that she needs them. Because she needs to have at least some hearing people in her tribe.

There are admittedly a few distractions around this core thread that weaken the play. Daniel isn’t just emotionally fragile; he hears voices, which get louder and more threatening with Billy’s departure from the family. I can’t imagine what that’s supposed to symbolize (and I wonder whether the sensitivities of the schizophrenic community were considered as carefully as those of the deaf in the play’s construction). Billy, meanwhile, after getting a job at the court lipreading surveillance videos, begins wantonly making up dialogue when he can’t actually read the accused’s lips, heedless of the possibility that he could send innocent people to jail (and go to jail himself). This revelation comes very late, and is never properly tied up; it feels like the opening to another chapter of the story that the play doesn’t have time to relate. But the core of the play, about actual and substitute families, the costs and benefits of exclusivity and inclusivity, is very strong.

As is the use of language in the play and its staging. Russell Harvard is a deaf actor, and he moves smoothly between speaking (in that distinctive “deaf accent”) and (when his character learns how) signing; Susannah Flood is hearing, but it’s fascinating to listen to her speech to hear signs of how her accent is changing as her character’s hearing starts to go. (I’d be curious to hear from someone fluent in sign how fluid she was at that, and whether her ostentatiously theatrical signing was a style choice or the sign equivalent of ham acting.) When the two of them converse exclusively in sign, supertitles are projected on surfaces around the stage, but because the seating is on all four sides, one’s view of said titles can easily be blocked – just as the deaf characters can be cut off from conversation by the simple act of a hearing character turning away to speak, and just as the hearing character can be deafened by the cacophony of too many people shouting at once. (I admit to being especially drawn to stagings that put you in the living room with the waving and shouting characters, but I can’t really imagine staging this play on a proscenium.)

The obvious play to compare Tribes to is Children of a Lesser God, which I’ve never loved, but at dinner after the show my wife compared it to another play about language as a tribal marker, Shaw’s Pygmalion, and I think that’s a more useful point of comparison. Billy is the product of his father’s Pygmalion fantasy, kept from signing so that he would speak English properly. (And the father has more than a passing resemblance to Henry Higgins, the man who boasted that he was as good as Pickering because while Pickering treated a flower girl like a lady, he treated a lady like a flower girl.) And then, like Eliza Doolittle, Billy is opened to a wider world by another language teacher, who, by learning him his language, inadvertently winds up driving a wedge between him and his former tribe.

Unfortunately, it also shares a flaw with Shaw’s play, in that both pretty much just end without actually wrapping anything up particularly effectively. But they say the journey is more important than the destination, and that’s certainly true with this powerfully-staged and -acted production of a compelling contemporary play.