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Steppenwolf’s Tribes Buzzes, Dizzies, and Dazzles

Nina Raine’s Tribes is a vivid exploration of how language molds lives, shapes perceptions and determines where we belong.

Photo: Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

Sign language, Chinese, Italian and French all show up in the babble of voices competing for attention in Nina Raine’s dizzying, dazzling Tribes, the story of a deaf man raised in a “hearing” family. Guided by director Austin Pendleton and sound designer Josh Schmidt’s (who’s auditory backdrop is critical), Tribes is a vivid exploration of how language molds lives, shapes perceptions and determines where we belong. Seemingly simple questions—"Did you hear me?,” “Are you listening?"—take on deep significance, speaking to the universal yearning to be truly heard. 

At the core of the narrative is Billy (John McGinty), a young deaf man who has been “brought up as if he was hearing,” in the words of his father Christopher (Francis Guinan). An expert lip reader, Billy has never learned to sign, nor have the hearing members of his family who include his troubled brother Daniel (Steve Haggard), a graduate student in linguistics plagued by auditory hallucinations, his sister Ruth (Helen Sadler), an aspiring opera singer and his mother Beth (Molly Regan), a novelist.

This tribe of outspoken, eccentric intellectuals echoes the families in dramas such as You Can’t Take it With You and Hay Fever: They’re smart, witty, opinionated, troubled, and insular. They are also don’t do well this outsiders like Sylvia (Alana Arenas), Billy’s new girlfriend who is slowly going deaf. Living in a liminal state between the hearing world and the non-hearing world, Sylvia, who Alrenas instill with understated elegance, embodies a bridge between the two.

Pendleton conducts Raine’s crescendos of overlapping voices with a keen ear. Words overlay words, music ebbs and flows, and surtitles provide translations that Raine sometimes makes deliberately ambiguous. All these fragments of sound and fury add up to a thought-provoking, richly dramatic whole.

As Billy, McGinty is equal parts strength and simmering rage, flourishing as his relationship with Sylvia deepens and his tension with his family grows. Haggard’s Daniel is equally memorable and heartbreaking. As the struggling brother, Haggard ably captures the confusion and terror that accompany auditory hallucinations. Guinan blusters and roars (often with hilarious impact) while Molly Regan captures an appealingly idiosyncratic combination of maternal love and anger. And as a would-be opera singer performing in church basements and school auditoriums, Sadler captures Ruth’s frustrations with pitch perfect acuity.

Raine, to her credit, doesn’t tie up Tribes with a neat bow. What playwright does make crystalline is the urgent necessity of being able to unearth meaning amid mountains of babble. For that, you have to remain silent and simply listen.

Tribes runs through Feb. 9 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted; $58–$70. steppenwolf.org

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