Curtains up. We're at a cranky family dinner, and conversation moves at the whiplash speed of congenital interruption. Barbs traded, meanings layered, anecdotes half-finished and spliced with asides.

This is a hyperlocal language, spoken only by those at this particular table. But what if one member of the family tribe gets just scraps of the chatter?

This was life growing up for actor Stephen Drabicki, the only Deaf member of a hearing family with seven siblings. And it’s also the situation for Billy, the character Drabicki has played four times in productions of Tribes across North America (and now at Artists Repertory Theatre through March 8).

By necessity, Drabicki's character learned early to master lip reading, situational clues and body language. Billy, raised by ivory-tower parents enamored of philosophical debate, opera, and poetry, is taught to avoid the “handicaps” of sign language and affiliation with the Deaf community. 

The result—as a lifetime of emotional outbursts and drama swirl just outside his line of sight—is that Billy must engage in constant catch-up and guesswork to remain part of the family dialogue.

As Billy, Drabicki is the white hot coal of playwright Nina Raine’s deeply affecting script. He burns slowly, emanating gradual clues that inform the audience what he catches—and how he copes—as his often dysfunctional family members rain fire, venom, and self-indulgent rants upon each other.

It’s an active theater experience, one that rewards attention to Dámaso Rodriguez’s multisensory direction: ticker-style captioning, lights as “soundscapes,” visual projection. But despite the American Sign Language interpreters and visible presence of Portland’s Deaf community at the show I attended (Artists Rep offers four ASL-interpreted performances over the show’s run), one of the key realizations here is that Raine’s play is intended for the hearing—a primer for those unfamiliar with the tensions between these two worlds.

To communicate Raine’s blistering family spats, Rodriguez makes some fine casting decisions: notably, resident artists Linda Alper and Michael Mendelson as Billy’s parents, whose self-satisfied erudition blinds them to the potholes of ignorance that separate them from their son. And as Billy’s volatile, borderline-savant brother, Josh Weinstein infuses his character’s bombastics with heart-breaking fragility. Speechifying is core to identity in Billy's family; the irony is that Raine has drawn characters lacking in much capacity to listen.

But without Drabicki, I wonder if Tribes—a play written as an intellectual exercise by a hearing woman with little previous experience with Deaf Culture—would succeed in translating with such nuanced emotion.

As it is, Raine’s message of the mixed blessings of tribal identity—and the pain one culture can visit on another—read clear as the sign for love.

Tribes by Nina Raine
Artists Repertory Theatre
Thru Mar 8

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