Phoenix Theatre Presents Brilliant, Angsty Tribes Through Sunday
The setup: Nina Raine's thought-provoking Tribes, about a typically troubled family whose deaf adult son, Billy, illuminates further hurt when he discovers the Deaf community he's been denied, has been acclaimed since it premièred in London in 2010. Winner of New York's 2012 Drama Desk Award for Best Play, the script not only presents its literal story with insight, humor, and sympathy, it raises issues of identity and communication with alternating subtlety and shock. And now we get to see it in Phoenix.
courtesy of Phoenix Theatre Willem Long and Gabrielle Van Buren in Tribes
The execution: Tribes marks my first visit inside Phoenix Theatre's new Black Box space. The gorgeous lobby, bar, and patio remodel lead to a space that, depending how it's configured, can feel cramped and cheap with imperfect sightlines.
But once you're settled in your seat, it's cozy, engaging, and furnished with all the technical bells and whistles necessary to support a broad range of theater. (And it can be configured different ways, so I hope we get to see that as seasons pass -- otherwise the wobbly railings and folding chairs are in there to no apparent effect.)
Eric Beeck's set is simply gorgeous, and it hints at the symbolic nature of some of the parallels that will play out by the time the show is over. The furniture and appliances are a cheerful, messy yet harmonious mix of colors, style, and materials, the way you'd like to think of your own family, maybe: individuals with their own quirks and talents, cohabiting to function as something greater than the sum of its parts.
But then you see the books. So many books. Billy's cruelly intellectual, hyperverbal family isn't simply fond of words the way academic people are, the way some British people (a bit more than corresponding Americans) are. They rely on language -- language each of them strictly defines on his or her own terms -- the way they rely on oxygen, literally choking when they can't say what they wish.