Right before Las Vegas Little Theatre’s splendid presentation of “Tribes” begins, the dissonant sounds of an orchestra tuning up clues us in to the idea that author Nina Raine uses music as a metaphor for both discord and harmony in her play about belonging. The lights go up and musical instruments segue into the banter of an English family at the dinner table. Each member has his own unique timbre and together they create a cacophonous symphony. Everyone talks yet no one hears a word.
Everyone that is except Billy (Ace Gilliam), the youngest adult sibling of the clan that includes brother Daniel (Josh Sigal), sister Ruth (Sarah Spraker), Mum Beth (Charlene Moskal), and Dad Christopher (Glenn Heath). We hardly notice Billy as he silently reads a book while his family bickers loudly around him in a game of verbal one-upmanship. He seems isolated and curiously not part of the conversation. Soon it’s apparent he’s deaf and can’t hear a thing.
He may not want to listen to them anyway. Academics with an interest in language, they’re a self- absorbed bunch in love with their own voices. Both Daniel and Ruth have returned to the roost, and Billy has come back from university with a taste for spreading his wings. When he meets a young woman named Sylvia (Jasmine Kojouri) who’s slowly going deaf from a genetic disorder, he falls hard and brings her home to meet the folks.
Sylvia teaches American Sign Language to Billy, who was brought up by his parents to speak vocally as if ignoring his deafness might make it disappear. With a new means of expression Billy awakens to his identity and finds a sense of community with others like him. He asserts his independence and his fragile family comes unglued.
“These nuts are all rotten,” Daniel wryly says. Careful listening is required as these folks talk over and under each other and gleefully fling zingers about. Directors T.J. Larsen and Jacob Moore’s remarkable ensemble cast are near-perfect in creating what feels like a loving, middle-class English family, warts and all. They capture the proper cadences of dialect and dry British wit, making it easy to convey Raine’s substantial subtext. And they keep an energetic pace without feeling rushed,
finding the silence and stillness when it counts.
Gilliam’s Billy is the calm amidst the storm and the anchor for the family. He’s angelic and pure,quiet and attuned. He never plays the victim, and we can see subtle nuance when he intuitively “fills in the spaces” of conversations he can’t see. When he confronts his family about not learning ASL, he does so forcefully yet without losing grace as he signs the words he’s internalized through years of suppression.
When Billy finds his new “tribe,” brother Daniel becomes despondent. He has a dark cloud hanging over, and hears the critical voices of his family in his head. Sigal fleshes Daniel out so fully that the story equally becomes his. Every word spoken and gesture made is filtered through the lens of mental illness as we watch him spiral helplessly downward, in the throes of a nervous breakdown. He admirably takes Daniel to the edge with just enough restraint to keep him from going over.
Dad Christopher is depressed when Billy chooses to “conform” by learning sign language. He’s a stuffy book critic who has no qualms about saying exactly what he thinks. Under the guise of sarcasm Christopher is cruel, but Heath in the role doesn’t allow nastiness to define the character. He masterfully delivers on the sharp, funny lines, yet allows a tiny bit of vulnerability here and there to peek through.
There is a balance and natural sweetness to both Moskal as Beth and Spraker as Ruth. Spraker especially is expert at deadpan, and Moskal plays the ditzy, dutiful wife to a tee in her symbolic kimono. Kojouri has a soft, gentle quality as Sylvia, and reminds of a hula dancer when she gracefully signs. As she descends into deafness, her pain is palpable. “I can’t hear music anymore,” she says.
Technical aspects make magic in the small space. Chris Davies’ simple set is configured with the audience on two sides, as if we are in their dining room eavesdropping on them. The lighting design of Kendra Harris and the supertitled video design of Moore work in tandem to give the cool effect of a silent movie during scenes between Billy and Sylvia, as they quietly sign their dialogue against the backdrop of a white wall. Kim Glover’s costumes are richly textured in a cold-weathered, Britishstyle, with harmonious colors that signify relationships. And the lovely sound design of Arles Estes sets the mood with mournful and melodious classical music.
Raine’s multilayered script isn’t perfect, but LVLT gives it an absorbing, top-rate presentation. We feel like a part of the tribe.