“Tribes,” an intelligent, profane play about the need to belong and the unwritten rules that are the price of it, is set in the world of the hearing-impaired. It's a rare wonder, tapping equally into your brain and your heart.
The SNAP Productions show, smartly directed by Michal Simpson, drew a sparse crowd to a snowy Thursday preview, but that's likely to change once word gets out about Noah Diaz's stellar performance in the lead role. “Tribes” boasts an entire cast of strong actors delivering British playwright Nina Raine's crackling dialogue, none better than Diaz.
Raine carefully sets up strong, opposing forces in the life of Billy (Diaz), a 27-year-old born deaf to a family with hearing parents and siblings. It's like two trains headed toward each other on the same track. The explosive crash inside Billy spills collateral damage onto every character in the show.
First we see the dynamics of his argumentative Jewish family living in suburban London. Billy's academic father, Christopher (Brent Spencer), insisted his son not learn sign language. Instead, Billy's mother, Beth (Judy Radcliff), a writer, trained him to speak and read lips, which he does superbly.
“Making deafness the center of your identity is the beginning of the end,” Christopher says with angry conviction. “Billy's been protected from all that.”
But as we watch Billy's linguistics-student brother, Daniel (Rick Terkeurst), and his pub-singer sister, Ruth (Kaitlyn McClincy), spar with each other and their bombastic parents, Billy can't follow the fast talk. They literally turn their backs, leaving Billy on the outside, unheard. Every family member is a pro with words, competing for status and attention with crude language and lacerating commentary. Yet all miss the giant communication gap in their midst.
We learn the hierarchy of the hearing-impaired community through Sylvia (Regina Palmer), Billy's new girlfriend, who is gradually losing her hearing. Her parents are deaf, so she knows sign language. She teaches Billy, opening a new tribe to him. He also launches a career as a legal translator, reading lips on video from prison visitor rooms or surveillance tapes.
Billy's new life changes family dynamics. Anger boils over. The politics of the deaf community lead to trouble between Billy and Sylvia as well.
Diaz does an incredible job of communicating what's unsaid, while also expertly conveying a deaf person's speech and viewpoint. Palmer is stellar portraying so much going on inside Sylvia. A woman in love, she walks on eggshells as a family outsider while her hearing slowly ebbs away, leaving her in grief.
Radcliff and Spencer, utterly credible as warring spouses, nonetheless convey deep love of their kids and each other. As Billy's messed up siblings, Terkeurst and McClincy are frequently the show's comic relief. But they also flesh out complex characters with inner wounds and beating hearts.
“Tribes,” in turns, is funny and heartbreaking. It's about hearing, not hearing, love, family and the need to belong. It's also about feeling alone. The language will be offputting for some, and subtitles cleverly displayed on a kitchen window occasionally are too far away from the speakers to register.
But when all is said and done, there isn't a character up there you don't care deeply about, and no shortage of ideas you'll want to talk over. To me, that's a stage hit. “Tribes” will rank with the season's best, whether you count it a comedy or a drama.
* * * * *
What: SNAP Productions stage dramedy
Where: SNAP/Shelterbelt Theatre, 3225 California St.
When: Tonight through Dec. 15.
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays. Exceptions: No performance Thanksgiving Day; Dec. 15 performance at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $15 adults, $12 students and senior citizens. Exception: $10 all seats on Thursdays.
Information: 402-341-2757 or snapproductions.com