Billy might be fortunate to miss much of the family squabbling around him. His adult siblings Ruth and Daniel have both moved back into the nest, crowding the space and ratcheting up the pressure. His father Christopher is a dedicated critic of everything and trashes Daniel’s doctoral thesis. Daniel in turn mocks Ruth’s singing. Beth constantly talks at top volume, a quirky and patronizing habit she developed because her son Billy is deaf.
Billy actually picks up on plenty, because he’s excellent at reading lips and faces. When he meets Sylvia, who is going deaf, the drama begins in “Tribes,” British playwright Nina Raine’s 2010 work, currently getting a vibrant regional premiere at Le Petit Theatre.
The family is a wordy bunch. Beth is writing her first novel. Christopher interrogates Daniel’s thoughts on language, which seem to involve theories of deconstruction and questioning what words signify. Ruth has joined an opera chorus and labors to translate lyrics into English.
Billy wears hearing aids and grew up without learning sign language. He gets interested in learning to sign when he meets Sylvia at a social event for people with hearing impairments. The first time he brings Sylvia home to meet the family, they prod her to show them a sign language translation of their take on the mechanics of another woman’s sexuality. Sylvia’s gestures barely require an interpreter.
Act 1 is full of fast and lively chatter. Despite the constant domestic fussing and judgment of people’s partners and relationships, Raine filled her script with shrewd insights into language and communication, including its many nonverbal aspects. Billy points out that sign language is not “broken English.” It’s got its own grammar, and it’s not second class or to be viewed as a sign of inferiority. And language barriers aren’t the only issue in the family.
A bedrock of British banter is the custom of “taking the piss” out of someone, or mocking others’ faults as a source of humor and conversation. There’s plenty of that in Billy’s family, but Christopher goes a step further. John Neisler makes him an effortlessly insistent and sincere crank — calling out personal flaws and arguing academic points even when the words are obviously painful to people in the room. He denounces becoming a member of any identity group, and defends the mocking of people from northern Britain, the Irish and others. It sharpens Raine’s concept of a tribe. More than just a language group, there’s a bond of unity — and distance from others.
Despite the challenges, Daniel battles to connect. For Billy, the silence is isolating enough. That’s a starting point with Sylvia, who has been going to meetings for deaf people for years. She grew up with deaf parents, and now she’s losing her hearing. But she’s skeptical that that bond is enough to sustain a relationship.
For Billy, learning a new language only opens up more questions. It leads to a job reading lips of people caught on surveillance tapes. He realizes new senses of control over his life and he starts to expect more of others.
Brian Andrew Cheslik nicely manages Billy’s transformation and drives the drama in Act 2. Cheslik is the artistic director of Deaf Austin Theatre and brilliantly articulates Billy’s point of view as well as his unspoken frustrations.
Kati Schwartz delivers a warm and nuanced performance as Sylvia.
Director Giovanna Sardelli keeps the action moving at a brisk clip, and it swirls around Joan Long’s effective set, though at times Sylvia seems to read signs from extreme angles or behind Billy’s. back. The show uses supertitles at times, and video projections of sound waves help underscore some of the things Billy and Sylvia say about their experiences. The insults in the text can be blistering, but the work is sensitive to the different abilities of its characters.
While the story explores the use of language, its triumph is the sensitive way it reveals meaningful connections between people.
‘Tribes’ runs at Le Petit Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16, 3 p.m. Sunday, April 17, and Thursday, April 28, through Sunday, May 1.