A young man who cannot hear, parents and siblings who will not listen, and an outsider who disrupts the ties that bind populate Nina Raine’s powerful, discussion-provoking Tribes, now getting a memorable Orange County Premiere at Anaheim’s Chance Theater.

Miles Barbee stars as Londoner Billy, profoundly hearing-impaired since birth but raised isolated from a community he at long last discovers at age twenty when a chance meeting with a young woman gradually going deaf introduces him to a world he no longer sees as off-limits.

Well-intentioned Billy’s 60something parents may have been in teaching their son to communicate solely via lip-reading and speech, but opinionated academic Christopher (Bruce Goodrich) and his would-be detective novelist wife Beth (Marina Coffee) remain blissfully unaware of how their decision has affected the youngest of their three live-at-home offspring.

Dueling dinner conversation swirl around Billy’s head as Dad berates his aspiring but apparently talentless “opera singer” daughter Ruth (Piper Power) while grad student Daniel (Jonathan Fisher) complains about being served nuts “that even the squirrels wouldn’t eat” until at last the dinner plates have been cleared and all Billy can ask is “What happened?”

Then he meets Sylvia (Aly Easton) and his life can never be the same again.

Playwright Raine doesn’t shy from political incorrectness, allowing Christopher in particular to offer opinions others might tiptoe around or simply choose to leave unspoken.

“Basically broken English” that makes its users “a bit black and white” is how Billy’s father sees sign language and he is equally dismissive of “the bloody deaf community” and “defining your personality around the fact that you’re deaf.”

No wonder, then, that Billy’s discovery of world he scarcely knew existed rocks his very existence even as Sylvia, raised by deaf parents, finds herself being forced into a community that judges her as “less good” than those who were born that way.

Raine eschews easy answers to any of these prickly issues while keeping her audience entertained by a family with more than enough quirks for sitcom stardom. (Beth is writing a “marriage-breakdown detective novel” with no idea who the killer will be. Ruth’s operatic “gigs” have so far been limited to a church hall and local pub whose lighting was, according to Daniel, “so dim I thought I’d finally gone blind from wanking.”)

Add to this a number of surprise twists and at least one moment that could coax tears from a stone and you’ve got a play that entertains, provokes, and moves in equal measure, particularly as directed for the Chance by the always incisive Marya Mazor and performed by an all-around impressive cast.

Goodrich is fearless in making the outspoken Christopher more than a bit of a jerk till we realize that confrontation is his way of showing love, and Coffee is terrific too as a wife and mother who does her best to keep the peace, no easy task with a daughter as deluded about her talents as Ruth (a deliciously off-the-wall Power) and a son battling demons we only gradually discover (Fisher both heartbreaking and devastating as Daniel).

Easton’s mastery of ASL combined with considerable acting gifts make her an ideal choice to play Sylvia opposite a fresh-from-Broadway Barbee (Otto in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening), so darned adorable that we root for Billy even at his most hurtful and insensitive.

Tribes looks fabulous thanks to Bradley Kaye’s finely detailed living room set, Jeff Brewer’s evocative lighting, Kate Bergh’s character-perfect costumes, and Nicholas Santiago’s eye-popping projections including some smartly situated and designed supertitles, and it sounds spectacular too thanks to Cricket S. Myers’ mix of music and effects that help us understand a bit better what Billy, Sylvia, and the rest are experiencing.

Kiana Bjur is assistant director. Wade Williamson is stage manager. Sophie Cripe is dramaturg. Tucker Boyes is assistant scenic designer. Glenda Morgan Brown is dialect coach.

I’ve waited four years since seeing Tribes’ original New York cast at the Mark Taper Forum for a second chance to experience Nina Raine’s breathtaking play. Chance Theater’s 100% SoCal cast, director, and design team have made it more than worth the wait.

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Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
September 30, 2017
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio


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