American Sign Language is gorgeous. When spoken by people who know it, truly know it, sign language is a dance, beautifully choreographed, elegantly executed.
To open its eleventh season, PURE Theatre celebrated the elegance, the challenge, and the beauty of American Sign Language as they brought to their stage the British family drama Tribes by Nina Raine. Under the directorial care of Cristy Landis, a veteran of the Charleston stage scene and a member of the PURE ensemble, Tribes is triumphant.
As the play opens, we meet what looks like a typical British family with typical British problems. All three children are grown, and all three children live with mom and dad. Through the course of the first scene we learn that son Billy is deaf, and no one in the family — not even Billy himself — speaks sign. A champion lip reader, Billy struggles keep up, eking out a lonely existence among the more traditionally dysfunctional members of his family.
When he meets Sylvia, the adult child of deaf parents, who’s fluent in sign and is losing her own hearing, a whole new world opens up for Billy — an independent world filled with people like him, who understand him in a way his family never has. Enter drama –—anger and confusion, love and remorse — all set within the family’s living room.
And it’s a beautiful living room, filled with mid-century modern furniture paired with comfy couches and a bookshelf stuffed full of literature. It looks exactly like the living space of a 21st century, well-to-do, creative family. For all their British accents — which are impeccably done, by the way — this family could live right next door.
The play is an ensemble piece, and most ensembles have a weak link. Tribes, however, does not. This cast is all strong. They have chemistry. They feed off each other in a way that feels authentic and fresh. When the show opens with a family argument, you get the guilty, voyeuristic pleasure of listening to your next door neighbors fight.
Peter Galle gets to stretch his acting wings as Daniel, Billy’s brother who hears voices, stutters, and yet has to cope with being the “normal” son. That's no easy feat, but Galle handles it well. As the family matriarch, Lynda Harvey-Carter has a delicate, loving touch, even when running around the stage in a bra. Mark Landis as the father, Christoper, and Corrine Crawford as sister Ruth offer robust supporting performances.
But Tribes’ truly great moments come at the hands of the deaf characters. Anna Stephenson is stunning as Sylvia, a girl who’s losing her hearing, and knows all too well what she’s losing. “I never thought going deaf would be so loud,” she says through tears, and it’s heartbreaking.
And Jake Bantel as Billy — well, it’s hard to believe he’s not actually deaf. When, midway through the second act, Billy and Sylvia begin to sign, they look as comfortable as though they’d been doing it their whole lives. They clearly studied long and hard under sign language consultant Dean Walters to master the art of signing. When they get going, it’s a waltz of silent speech.
To keep the audience in the know for the signed conversations, a screen at the back of the stage provides subtitles, but you almost don’t need them. Sylvia and Billy’s faces, for the most part, say enough. Still, I appreciated the confirmation of what I thought they were saying, and the chance to look away and give Sylvia and Billy a little bit of privacy.
I walked out of the theater near-speechless, full of congratulations for the cast and crew. Honestly, I expect most viewers will feel the same way.