Friday, November 8, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Moonlight" (on Nina Raines' Tribes)

by Douglas Messerli
Nina Raines Tribes / the performance I saw was at the Guthrie Theater, November 6, 2013

British playwright Nina Raine’s play Tribes is the kind of theater piece regional theaters love to present, representing as it does a dysfunctional family situation—in this case father, mother, daughter and two sons—wittily denouncing one another while representing their failed personalities—all to the delight of the mostly elderly audiences who have already shed their sons and daughters. Add to this a large dollop of social and political incorrectness which is, in part, destroying the family— particularly, in Tribes, the refusal to accept their son as anyone but a “handicapped” individual—and you have the perfect canvas upon which to paint what used to be called “a problem play,” but upon which one can also doodle out vicariously problematic conditions of the society at large. Tribes is basically a realist family play that has seemingly been inspired by far more absurdist family depictions such as those by fellow British artist Enda Walsh.

      You would certainly never confuse the two. Walsh allows the characters to go where they want to, to play out their own impossible destinies, while Raine takes an impossible family into ultimately a far more controlled and “civilized” discourse. If the father of this particular tribe is determined in his pretense of family “exceptionalness” (i.e. family nonconformity) to keep it  from being tainted by any other “typical” family, the members of this coven become quite typical in their inability to communicate with one another or relate societally. At moments this play almost reminded me of the classic American comedy You Can’t Take It With You, in which the playwrighting mother, the firework constructing father, a xylophone-playing brother, and dancing sister are forced to confront, through the normality of their sibling, a world outside of their particular looneybin. But while Kaufman and Hart’s atypical American family members are almost always loveable even in their absurd obsessions, Raines’ familiar individuals often are simply grating and unpleasant in their abuse of one another.

      While everyone accepted each other for the true eccentric he or she was in the American work, in Tribes any attempt to create—and all family members here have creative aspirations—results only in jealousy and further abuse. The father (Stephen Schnetzer), who claims his major interest is language and who is attempting, quite unsuccessful, to learn Chinese, ridicules his son’s (Hugh Kennedy) attempts to write a thesis attacking language; mocks his wife’s (Sally Wingert) novel-writing ambitions; and absolutely dismisses his daughter’s (Anna Reichert) singing career. Similarly, the brother, Dan, ridicules his sister and also dismisses his mother while railing against his father’s ridiculous values and pronunciations. The daughter, Ruth, hates everyone equally. Only the beloved “mascot” of the family, Billy (the highly likeable John McGinty), the deaf-mute son whom they have refused to allow to learn sign language, painstakingly teaching instead to read lips and speak without being able to hear his own words, is beloved by all. In a sense, he is their beautiful Frankenstein, their own creation.

      The play, once it has properly established the unhappiness of each family member, turns to Billy, who having returned home from college, meets a young, attractive girl (Tracey Maloney) who, although she can still hear some words and speak quite normally, is quickly growing deaf. Unlike Billy’s family who in their loud screams and shouts might make anyone go deaf, her parents were deaf at birth. For Billy, whom we soon discover has basically been neglected, even if beloved by loud-talking beasts of his house, the discovery of a sensitive, clever, witty, and, as she describes herself, ironic user of sign-language, is an intriguing being with whom he quickly falls in love.

      The big event of the first act, accordingly, is, as in You Can’t Take It With You, the invitation of the young Sylvia to dinner, where we can only wonder how the absurd eccentricities of this family will explode in the face of the relative conventionality of Billy’s new lover. For a few moments indeed, the play takes that path, just before it swerves off into total unbelievably—as if we didn’t already doubt the existence of such a mean-spirited tribe—as faced with the natives, Sylvia suddenly calms them by playing Debussy’s Claire de Lune on their living-room piano, the “moonlight” of this sentimental promenade evidently calming, momentarily at least, the madness of their souls

     Act II, accordingly, is Billy’s chance to howl, as, having finally learned sign language from Sylvia, he demands his family learn it, if for no other reason than to finally pay attention to him as the deaf adult he is. Outraged at his demand that they rearrange their selfish occupations, they refuse, Billy suddenly insisting he will never speak to them nor see then again.

     What he, in turn, has not accounted for, is Sylvia’s own needs. She herself is terrified about the absolute “crackle and roar” of her growing silence; and, although, he attempts to reassure her, Billy cannot comprehend that what she is experiencing is not the same as his deafness from birth. In anger, Sylvia leaves him, temporarily, at least, creating a great emptiness in the play. For suddenly, no one stages seems to be able to communicate with one another. Everyone seeming is deaf to all others.    

     So, Raines shows us, rather heavy-handedly, is that none of us can truly understand each other, and that whether one shouts or hears nothing, the same feelings of isolation and loneliness surround us all.

     Back at home, meanwhile, it has become apparent that the family has been far more dependent on the quiet and loving Billy than they might have ever imagined. The family’s daughter Ruth is near suicidal, the mother, Beth, has developed a writing block, and even Christopher, the father, seems lost, abandoning his Chinese studies. Billy’s brother seemingly suffers the most, as it appears he has not only loved his brother but has depended upon that love as an alternative to the empty universe he inhabits; suddenly he returns to his own childhood handicap, stammering, unable to speak coherently in a way that makes Billy’s sometimes mispronounced phrases seem fluent and totally comprehensible—despite the fact that he speaks in a language he cannot even hear.

     In the end, Raines, accordingly, has given herself no choice but to shove the family garbage under the rug, so to speak, to ignore all the issues of tribalism and isolation she has raised, in order to bring Billy back to save them. Vaguely, it is Sylvia, seeming having to Billy, that insists he return, momentarily at least, to the fold.

     When Billy grudgingly does so, Daniel, for the first time, gives in to outside demands, signing his love for his brother, the others also greeting him with open hugs, Sylvia, standing at the periphery of this tribal ceremony. It’s a tearful moment, and, along with several previous witty repartees that have occurred throughout Raines’ play, it might even lead one to imagine that Tribes was quite profound. Yet one can’t help but remember that Raines has not answered, or even attempted to answer, any of the deeper questions she has raised. If goodness now prevails it is simply because correctness has won out over the brutal exclusion and abuse. But we have no real evidence that empathy and love have won the day. As in many a play that has a social axe to grind, the author alone has “fixed” the plot, while her originals characters have gone spinning off in space. If Billy returns to his home permanently we have no evidence to believe that anything has truly changed. If we feel good, it is only because the author has willed it, not because the figures she has created have found a way out of their dark caves.

      Perhaps that is enough, that the play’s audience stands applause of the achievements within the silent worlds of the work’s to lead actors, particularly McGinty, who it appears is truly deaf. Surely there is something positive to be said by the fact that the performance I caught was well attended by several deaf attendees, to whom a couple signed the entire play, while, as in opera, a light-board displayed the entire text.

        But I would like to have seen Raines’ and her players actually take on some of the crueler and darker issues she and her characters brought up, particularly the tribalism that exists in so-called “handicap” communities, just as in certain families. And I might have wished for a less sentimental and more honest rapprochement between such isolated communities as Billy’s family and Billy’s new friends.

Minneapolis, November 7, 2013