What is the value of the spoken word? For those who can hear, the spoken word is a vital form of communication, but how much does it define who we are? If we lose our hearing, do we also lose our identity?

That question plagues Sylvia (Kate Finch) in “Tribes” as she progressively becomes deaf. But, in reality, people communicate through a variety of verbal and nonverbal ways, including speech, sign language, writing, music, facial expressions and mannerisms.

British playwright Nina Raine offers the audience an engrossing case study of a dysfunctional family: the mom, Beth (Elizabeth West); dad, Christopher (Michael Sean McGuinness); and their three grown children, Daniel (Matthew Stuart Jackson), Ruth (Kat Moraros) and Billy (Garrett Zuercher).

Billy is the only deaf family member, but all five struggle to find their voices in the chaos of life.

Adding complexity, Billy’s girlfriend, Sylvia, finds herself in the middle of the hearing and deaf worlds, not feeling like she fits in either.

From the start Friday, “Tribes” challenged the audience’s perception. The lights darkened on a sparse set, featuring a table and chairs. When the lights came back up moments later, a whole kitchen had magically appeared. Was the mind’s eye playing tricks? Was the kitchen there all along and somehow forgotten or overlooked?


The veil of magic was pulled back for the remainder of the production, with set changes occurring in full view. The audience watched, intrigued, as black-clad set hands assembled what couldn’t glide into place of its own volition.

The set served as an intriguing visual metaphor for the play’s deconstruction of language and the perceptions we hold about people based on their chosen form of communication and self-expression.

Patrons be warned, the “Tribes” family is definitely not the Andersons from 1950s American television, and this father definitely doesn’t know best. Christopher is an equal-opportunity offender who uses profanity and constantly makes disparaging comments. And his family follows his example.

Each character is wrestling with issues that act as a communication barrier, splintering the family dynamic. The issues range from obvious ones such as Billy’s deafness and Dan’s stuttering, to Christopher’s less straightforward need to argue and Ruth’s insecurity.

Portland Stage’s cast members deliver no-holds-barred performances that highlight the complexity of communication. Each brings out the intricacies of the characters, allowing the audience to experience the individual points of view.

Providing added realism, Zuercher is a professional deaf actor, playwright, director and American Sign Language consultant. When he spoke his lines Friday, they visually appeared on a screen above the stage to provide clarity. It was fascinating to see how animated and expressive he became when switching from speech to sign language.

“Tribes” boldly explores the notion of language and communication with humor and emotion. And Portland Stage has creatively accepted the challenges the play poses, delivering a production that is thought-provoking and enlightening.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:


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