"Tribes" (Steppenwolf Theatre): Multi-layered Opus

"Tribes" (Steppenwolf Theatre):  Multi-layered Opus

Steppenwolf Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of TRIBES.

At first hearing, TRIBES sounds like an R-rated Hallmark Channel movie.  Its focus seems dedicated to building sensitivity towards deaf people.  A family of intellectuals realizes they have excluded one of their own.  Their rapid-fire dialogue, riddled with inside jokes and elitist snobbery, omits the hearing impaired Billy (played by John McGinty) from the subtle nuisances of the exchanges.  An earnest McGinty becomes aware of his family’s neglect by the effervescent Alana Arenas (Sylvia).  (Arenas effectively plays a British woman losing her hearing. She communicates through sign language and a voice deteriorating into hollow tones.) Understanding Arenas struggle becoming deaf empowers McGinty to make demands of his family.  By more actively listening, TRIBES resonates as the dissection of a family’s individual and collective identification.

Playwright Nina Raine penned a multi-layered opus.  The dialogue is sharp and witty.  Her characters are distinct and dysfunctional.  Under the well-paced direction of Austin Pendleton, the conversations are overlapped and boisterous.  The terrific ensemble becomes the best and worst parts of a family.  If Archie Bunker had an academic brother, it would be Francis Guinan (Christopher).  The cantankerous Guinan is deliciously acerbic.  He boasts of being unapologetic as he mercilessly insults family members and their friends.  Balancing him out, the amusing Molly Regan (Beth) plays a daft, kind-hearted matriarch.  Guinan and Regan are perfect as the liberal, free-spirited parents raising their, now adult, children unconventionally.

Another outstanding performance is Steve Haggard (Daniel).  Haggard goes to heart-wrenching extreme in illustrating ego and affliction.  His impressive transformation left me with second act questions.  Whereas the first act introduces the family and sets up the conflict in a couple days, Act II shortcuts through time spans of days or months.  I’m not sure.  It’s confusing.  In the second half of the play, Raine has relational and personal deterioration happen instantaneous from one scene to another.  Despite these quick transitions producing some clunkiness, the overall strong connection between this messed-up clan and the audience remains intact.

TRIBES takes place in the house that Scenic Designer Walt Spangler built.  Spangler’s two story home adds to the storytelling.  Billy’s cubby of a room has become a space for the family’s surplus of crap.  It powerfully symbolizes the role that Billy has assumed in his family.

TRIBES may sound like a story of a deaf man in an identity crisis.  After listening intently, you will realize TRIBES is much more.  It’s a coming of age story about childhood roles we assume and discard and revisit as adults.

Running Time:  Two hours and fifteen minutes includes an intermission

At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Written by Nina Raine

Directed by Austin Pendleton

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays at 7:30pm

Wednesdays at 2pm

Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm

Thru February 9th

Buy Tickets at www.steppenwolf.org

Leave a comment