Hostility runs in the family in Steppenwolf’s fearsome ‘Tribes’
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic December 15, 2013 8:24PM
When: Through Feb. 9
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted
Info: (312) 335-1650;
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
Updated: January 16, 2014 12:21PM
Editor’s note: The Steppenwolf Theatre production of “Tribes” has been extended through Feb. 15.
As an intensely dramatic clan of its own devising, Steppenwolf Theatre has long reveled in plays that explore the nature of the family unit — from Sam Shepard’s primal “Buried Child” to Tracy Letts’ fevered “August: Osage County.” It now continues that exploration with the fearsome “Tribes,” by British playwright Nina Raines.
“Tribes” homes in on a contemporary bourgeois-bohemian English family: A couple in their early 60s, and their three twentysomething “children,” all trapped in a net of intense but thwarted love, seething resentments, bitter competitiveness, intellectual and artistic status-seeking and a painful failure to communicate in any language.
Though the family is privileged on many levels, its dysfunction is writ large. And in addition to being “difficult people” they are, in many cases, difficult to like. Despite the destructive effect they have on each other they remain tightly bound — all part of a high-intensity group neurosis that leaves them continually disappointed as each hungrily seeks approval and unconditional love from the others in their insular little tribe. Their problems are thrown into even sharper relief with the arrival of an outsider.
Setting the unhealthy tone for the family are Christopher (volatile Francis Guinan), a hypercritical academic, and his wife, Beth (the pitch-perfect Molly Regan), a haltingly maternal woman now trying her hand at a novel. Their marriage has clearly lost all passion, other than extreme distemper, that it might once have had.
The couple’s oldest son, Daniel (Steve Haggard in a virtuosic turn), is clearly mentally ill — a semiotics scholar who has just moved back home, and whose linguistic education seems only to have rendered him further unable to communicate. His sister Ruth (Helen Sadler) is a garden variety neurotic, an aspiring opera singer aware of her limited talent.
Their younger brother, Billy (John McGinty, who stops the show with his hilarious signing of an obscene remark), is deaf. A gifted lip reader (signing is considered by some to be “ghettoizing” but it is a far more complicated issue here), he also can speak with considerable clarity.
In many ways the most normal member of the tribe, Billy has met his first girlfriend, Sylvia (an exquisitely limned turn by Alana Arenas), the attractive, assertive daughter of deaf parents who is going deaf herself. Though uneasily caught between the hearing and deaf worlds (signing, lip reading and supertitles are intricately woven into the script), Sylvia introduces Billy to a “tribe” and language he has never known, and there are many unexpected results.
Under Austin Pendleton’s incisive direction (on Walt Spangler’s grand-scale set), this emotionally searing play tears at civility. And even if it is exceedingly difficult to be in the company of this alternately smug, sad and self-involved family, you cannot deny the ferocity of its existence. One last thought: Seeing this play just after the sign-language debacle at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was the latest reminder of the uncanny reverberations between art and life.