Deafness is the place explored in Nina Raine’s increasingly cogent play Tribes presented by SNAP Productions. And, as you listen and look, you’ll become impressed by her conception and how director Michael Simpson realizes it as personified by his capable cast.
At first, sitting in semi-darkness before the stage lights and the performers illuminate where this will arrive, film clips flash at the back of the stage, depicting people silently communicating with their hands, perhaps causing you to anticipate something sensitive. But, as the first scenes assault you with noisy, nasty talk punctuated by profanity and crude sexual references, you could conclude that this is, after all, just about another dysfunctional family. And yet, young Billy sits in the center smiling, even though you quickly learn that he cannot hear. Maybe he’s blessed; the high volume conversation cannot damage his eardrums. Spinning off from these moments, much will emerge. Not swiftly though. It takes time to realize that Raine knows what she is doing. Simpson knows too. So do his actors.
Gradually, intermittently, conversations take up the subject of communication, a sort of abstract discussion among these seemingly superficial, though educated Brits. Billy understands some of their words; he can read lips. He can intuit more, even as blind people can sense other people’s feelings in the dark. But the concepts are too complex for him to grasp. Raine put such thoughts there for us to ponder. They arrive unfocused, appropriate to those mouthing them. You also might consider why Raine rains down on us so much profanity, despite the seeming intelligence within this family; it’s as if they choose to use lazy language.
There is anger in that house. Billy escapes it inside his own silent cocoon, not yet ready to fly off or light out on his own. He will have his moment, though. And that is where Raine’s remarkable writing surges with vitality and meaning. Noah Diaz’s Billy at that moment becomes a beautifully moving portrayal, without him ever saying words, his mouth, his eyes, his body expressing pain, anger, sorrow. Diaz dynamically owns the stage.
Billy’s family consists of his father, Christopher; his mother, Beth; his older brother, Daniel and his sister, Ruth. Christopher is a snotty, self-impressed academic critic. Sometimes bewildered Beth is starting to create a crime novel. Unhappy Daniel is a writing a thesis about language. Insecure Ruth aims to be an opera singer in local venues. Billy seems to have nowhere to go. But then he encounters Sylvia, who grew up with deaf parents and is gradually losing her own hearing. She knows and can use sign language. Billy doesn’t. They connect in silence. From that first connection, Billy has somewhere to go, joining another tribe, The Deaf, finding community and a precise identity. (“Deaf” here connotes a group as specific as, say, Italian-Americans…for whom gesturing adds meaning to words.) Christopher had wanted Billy to find his own way with his impairment, as if it were not special. But then Billy learns his own specialness.
Director Simpson thoroughly brings this all home up close and personal, especially given the proximity of the stage. There are real props such as food, tea, clothes being ironed. No pantomiming here, making the use of hands always literal, never pretending to be something else. Sign language dialogue, by the way, is projected on an upstage screen.
Diaz provides a remarkably true sense of Billy. He speaks haltingly, even as do some Deaf. Then, as Billy develops fluency signing, Diaz comes vibrantly alive expressing the newly embraced identity, his hands, his fingers, his gestures a vivid, moving portrayal. Meanwhile, Regina Palmer plays Sylvia with warm gentleness and eventually confused vulnerability as her capacity to hear fades into silence. Like Diaz, she speaks eloquently without sound.
At first, Brent Spencer’s take on Christopher seems pushy and over the top. Only as the second act unfolds, can you see the point of such seeming excess. Noise is clearly part of the home environment No wonder that Billy would have been intimidated, even without experiencing the volume.
Raine exceptionally delves into idea of identity, of specialness, reminding us of variations in the meaning of family. And, within that framework, she thoroughly portrays what it means to be different from the presumed norm. To be Deaf. These and many more salient points accumulate with fine directorial and performing perception.
This 2010 play has been produced and praised in London, off-Broadway and L.A. So, SNAP has made a fine choice, one which dovetails with its mission, to “ promote understanding and acceptance of all members of the community,” according to its web site.
Starting in 1993, with the acronym standing for Supporting Nebraska AIDS Programs, AIDs was the original focus. But now, SNAP President Todd Brooks points out, “We are a tolerance diversity theater; we try to pick shows that will challenge the audience to think outside the box. ”
“We want people to understand about the efforts a Deaf person has to make to communicate and why that is so hard,” director Simpson said. “Communication is essential in our lives; when absent it reminds us how much and how little language can do.” In fact, early in his life, Simpson got involved in Deaf studies and Deaf culture, learning American Sign Language. He had hoped to become an interpreter for the Deaf, but found difficult the demands of being always on call. Naturally, as one member of SNAP’s play-reading committee, he advocated producing Tribes and got the go- ahead to do so.
Other directing credits for Simpson make it clear that diversity motivates SNAP. He staged Next to Normal last season and Kiss of the Spider Woman in 2004. These and almost all other productions were new to Omaha.
But don’t think that serious material alone characterizes the company’s offerings. "Christmas With The Crawfords has been our biggest success,” Brooks commented. “We have mounted that six times and audiences still clamor for it to come back.” FYI, in case you don’t know about this evident hoot, the campy comedy by Richard Winchester, Mark Sargent and Wayne Buidens takes place during a holiday broadcast featuring Joan Crawford and newspaper gossip columnist Hedda Hopper while a parade of stars drops by to sing and dance.
Yes, the tiny 55-seat theater, which SNAP has shared with Shelterbelt Theatre since 2001, has been the venue for large cast productions that you might not expect in so small a space, such as Rent, Cabaret and Take Me Out. How does such a small company manage to do this and keep going? Brooks cites a long list of supporters and volunteers. The group also gets support from the Nebraska Arts Council and Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Clearly SNAP has been doing something well. This latest choice substantiates that.
You could ask, what does Tribes have to do with this holiday season when most stage offerings focus on more obvious themes? Consider this: The family in the story seriously needs to come together and to cherish each other, much as families do at this time of year. In this case, these people could embrace diversity and embrace each other. Such a happy ending would warm a cold night.
Tribes continues through December 15 at 3225 California Street, Omaha. 8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 6:00 p.m. Sundays plus 2:oo p.m. Sunday, December 15. $10-$15. More info at http://www.snapproductions.com/archive_shows/2013/tribes.php or 402-341-2757