All of our digital devices notwithstanding, communication still essentially comes down to what it has always come down to: people in a room together, trying to make themselves understood.
A tricky equation in the best of circumstances, it’s greatly complicated when one side refuses to meet the other halfway.
That, in essence, is the situation faced by a deaf young man named Billy in Nina Raine’s “Tribes,’’ now receiving its New England premiere in a wholly engrossing SpeakEasy Stage Company production directed by M. Bevin O’Gara.
Billy’s self-absorbed family has refused to learn sign language, leaving him awkwardly stranded between two worlds, an insider-outsider. In exploring that dilemma and the steps Billy takes toward forging an identity of his own, O’Gara elicits some of the finest ensemble acting seen on any Boston stage this year. She also makes skillful use of sound and music (the sound design is by Arshan Gailus) and projections (by Garrett Herzig) to underscore what is being lost, found, and regained in “Tribes.’’
The grandniece of Boris Pasternak, no less, Raine has written an exquisitely observant but not perfect play. There’s an excessive focus on Billy’s brother in “Tribes,’’ and the final section feels underdeveloped and abrupt. But its weaknesses are outweighed by its substantial strengths.
In the role of Billy, 24-year-old James (Joey) Caverly is first-rate. Caverly, who is deaf and has performed with the National Theatre of the Deaf, brings an absorbing but unshowy urgency to each turn on Billy’s emotional journey. That journey is made bumpier by his family, a fundamentally loving but fractious crew.
Father Christopher (Patrick Shea), a pugnacious scholar and critic, loftily informs Billy that they did not learn to sign “out of principle . . . we didn’t want to make you part of a minority world.’’ Brother Daniel (Nael Nacer) is attempting to write a thesis and recover from a recent breakup but is steadily sliding into depression and starting to hear voices in his head. Sister Ruth (Kathryn Myles) is embarking on what she hopes, probably in vain, will be a career as an opera singer. The peacemaker in this clan is mother Beth, well played by Adrianne Krstansky. Beth is at work on what she describes as a “marriage-breakdown detective novel.’’
They’re a hyper-verbal bunch, and the consequences for Billy of their unwillingness to sign are evident in the strained, effortful expression on Caverly’s face as the character struggles to follow their conversations by lip-reading, forced to periodically interject questions like “What are you all talking about?’’ The family seems content to leave Billy in the role of permanent onlooker. But then he meets Sylvia, portrayed by Erica Spyres.
Sylvia, who is going deaf, can freely express herself with sign language as well as the spoken word, and she teaches him how to sign. Soon Billy confronts his parents and siblings with what amounts to half ultimatum, half declaration of independence: Learn how to sign, or he will cease communication with them. The scene in which he delivers that message is likely to bring a lump to your throat.
But the playwright is not interested in constructing a three-hanky weepie, or in a straight-ahead social-issues drama, for that matter. “Tribes’’ is largely devoid of manipulative button-pushing. What you get instead are honest human moments, as Raine explores that complicated familial intersection where complacency, loyalty, thoughtlessness, good intentions, and misunderstandings collide.
You’ve got a close-up view of those collisions at the Roberts Studio Theatre because of the in-the-round configuration O’Gara has adopted for the production, which (deliberately, I suspect) gives the audience an occasional sense of Billy’s frustrations. At the performance I attended there were a couple of moments when I was looking at an actor’s back just when I wanted to see the expression on his or her face.
As Sylvia, battling an undertow of anguish at the steady loss of her hearing even as she serves as an inspiration to Billy, Spyres adds to her growing portfolio of vividly memorable performances — and also to her reputation for uncommon versatility. The actress proved adept at heartfelt drama in Lyric Stage’s “Time Stands Still,’’ at puppetry and raunchy comedy in the Lyric’s “Avenue Q,’’ and at imbuing Sondheim ballads with the necessary ambivalent melancholy in New Repertory Theatre’s “Marry Me a Little.’’ Spyres did not know sign language before beginning rehearsals for “Tribes,’’ according to a SpeakEasy spokesman, but you’d never know it.
Playing Christopher, the least sympathetic figure onstage, Shea makes him neither a monster nor a lovable curmudgeon, instead suggesting he is a man whose humble origins have made him the absolutist he is, fearful he’ll backslide if he yields even an inch.
As previously mentioned, I think Raine tips the balance too far in Daniel’s direction, but that doesn’t diminish my admiration for the intensity of Nacer’s portrayal, which carries the unpredictable jolts and sparks of a frayed electrical wire. He and Caverly make clear how strong the fraternal bond is between Daniel and Billy; in some ways, Daniel has the most to lose from Billy’s newfound independence. Their final scene together is a beauty.
But it is much earlier, when Billy first meets Sylvia, that the underlying truth of “Tribes’’ piercingly emerges. Sylvia tells him he’s lucky to have been born deaf rather than be going deaf, as she is, adding: “You don’t know what you’re missing.’’ His reply: “Yes, I do.’’