By ERIC GRODE
Even when the words in Tribes are delivered via newly empowered hands or innovatively placed surtitles, they have the power to wound or to heal, to chisel out new alliances while blurring earlier ones.
At the beginning of Nina Raine's bruising drama, now at the Barrow Street Theatre, an "inventively pessimistic" north London family has reached an indelicate but nonetheless comfortable balance. At the center of the hurricane sits Billy, the coddled deaf son who has been insulated from what his father witheringly calls "the deaf community." But when Billy begins dating a young woman who is going deaf herself---and when he finds a place among people outside his family---familiar patterns and awkward silences start breaking.
As part of his metamorphosis, Billy learns sign language, or "sign," as it's referred to throughout the play. This creates dramatic tension, since none of his relatives can sign, and it also leads to the extensive and at times devastating use of surtitles. Sometimes the titles simply translate what's being said in sign language, but sometimes they reveal what people say to each other with nothing but heartbroken silence.
The impact of the surtitles partly stems from director David Cromer, who was last at Barrow Street with his 2009 production of Our Town. Because he decided to stage Tribes in the round, the titles had to be visible from four different directions as opposed to the usual one. They're projected on bits of the set and surprising patches of wall, which makes them feel like an organic part of the show instead of something grafted on top of it.
Tribes is Raine's second play, coming after the 2006 work Rabbit earned her a pair of Britain's most prestigious awards for promising playwrights. (Raine brought Rabbit to New York in 2007, when she also directed the production as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival.) The newer work made good on that promise, earning an Olivier Award nomination for best play. It also brought Raine, 36, back to London's prestigious Royal Court Theatre, where she had trained as a director.
Raine got the idea for Tribes after seeing a documentary on a deaf couple, but it was at least a year before she actually began writing it. "Then it took ages because I said, 'I've gotta meet some deaf people,'" she recalls.
As protracted as her process can be, Raine says she does little editing once she's written the piece: "By the time I'm done, I'm done." The one exception involves trimming excess verbiage, something she only becomes aware of when actors give voice to the script. "When people actually say my lines for the first time, I always say, 'My God, they're yakking on a bit.'"
Raine has acknowledged parallels to the highly literate family in Tribes and her own family: Her parents are the poet Craig Raine and the literary scholar Ann Pasternak Slater. Perhaps this is why she takes a somewhat more charitable view of the play's quibbling, snubbing, ultimately loving clan. "David constantly says, 'They're damaged, they're damaged.' And I keep thinking, 'They're not that damaged. Are they?'"
Eric Grode is the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press). Photo of "Tribes" cast by Gregory Costanzo