“Tribes” – Phoenix Theatre

This review aired on KBAQ February 3, 2014


Black Box Theatre, Phoenix Theatre
Phoenix, AZ

“Tribes,” Nina Raine’s 2012 off-Broadway play, is thoughtfully moving and Phoenix Theatre does it beautifully with an exquisite cast who portray their characters with touching depth.  “Tribes” deals with a challenging subject – being deaf in an otherwise normal but highly dysfunctional family.

Billy, the deaf son, has struggled without any family assistance to come to terms with his affliction.  Billy doesn’t know sign language because his family forced him to read lips because they wouldn’t learn to sign.  Billy has a crass brother, Daniel, a mindless sister, Ruth, a pleading mother, Beth, who doesn’t understand Billy’s frustration, and a clueless father, Christopher, who comprehends nothing unless it hits him over the head.  The only other character, Sylvia, is Billy’s sensitive hearing girlfriend who has two deaf parents but is now becoming deaf.  She knows sign language and opens Billy’s world when she introduces it to him.  The play examines how awful people can be to challenged persons as they expect them to adapt their handicaps so as not to rock the normal people’s lives.

As directed by Paul Barnes, the play is touchingly real as we look in on this closed family and the awful expectations they’ve placed on Billy.  You believe every minute you are eavesdropping on this conceited family.

As the bizarre mother, Cathy Dresbach starts as a regular appearing matriarch who is shattered when Billy reveals his feelings.  Dion Johnson never stops being a demanding prick as Billy’s heartless father and he never allows his character to show any understanding.  Marshall Glass is a stunning Daniel who has let some of Billy’s hate rub off on him although he professes to not understand it.  Caroline Wagner is tender as Billy’s sister, Ruth, who can’t see Billy’s hurt and disgust.  Gabrielle Van Buren is a remarkable Sylvia, the woman who understands it all but can’t seem to share her understanding with this clueless family.  Finally, Willem Long, deaf himself, is fabulous as Billy as he transforms from the put upon family cripple to the ranting son who has every right to be so put upon.  If there’s a criticism, the play is set in London but rarely gives any sense of the English setting.

“Tribes” is a difficult play to watch because it opens our eyes to the awful challenges that deaf people confront in a heartless society that does nothing to aid them.  It continues in Phoenix Theatre’s Black Box Theatre until February 16.  For tickets, call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 602-254-2151 or order tickets online at www.phoenixtheatre.com.

Grade: A

One Response to ““Tribes” – Phoenix Theatre”

  1. Chris Curcio said:

    Aug 08, 14 at 17:15

    My web site, http://www.curtainupphoenix.com is my site exclusively so I am not interested in adding any additional theater critics to the site but thanks for offering your services.