steppenwolf theatre

Directed by Austin Pendleton

At Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

Sharply funny yet poignant family drama about their search for a common language

British playwright Nina Raine’s Tribes, now in its Chicago premiere after successful run in London and New York, is just the type of play that is fertile material for the folks at Steppenwolf  Theatre (think August Osage County). We meet an eccentric and quite intellectual British family who enjoy using insults, foul language, arguments, and ridicule to both communicate and express themselves in a sort of private language laced with in-jokes and ineffectual arrogance.

steppenwolf theatre

Christopher (Francis Guinan in a ferocious turn) is the patriarch who leads the way with his acid tongue and unrelenting opinions. His wife Beth (Molly Regan) is his equal in furious debate yet she is more kind and accommodating. Three three siblings: Ruth (Helen Sadler) is a self-doubting fledgling opera singer; Daniel (Steve Haggard in a fabulous performance) is the mentally ill oldest brother trying to finish his thesis; Billy is the born deaf son (played by the also born deaf John McGinty). Billy has learned to read lips but not sign language as his parents never wanted to treat Billy as ‘handicapped’ or as a victim but rather as an equal in their family.

steppenwolf theatre

That decision wears thin on Billy over the years since tones, nuance and timber escape him during the often tremulous family spats. Billy is the only family member who truly listens. He never feels a complete member of the family. His world is challenged when Billy meets Sylvia (Alana Arenas) who is a child of deaf parents and one whose hearing is quickly fading. Billy instantly falls in love with Sylvia who introduces him to the the larger Deaf community. Billy learns to sign after prodding from Sylvia.. This exposure sparks a struggle for self-identity for Billy. He realizes that their is a larger world available to him through signing and the Deaf community.

Tribal wars erupt when Billy brings Sylvia home for dinner. Christopher and Daniel lead the not so subtle attack upon Sylvia who holds her own with the arrogant family through a combination of biting retorts and animated signing. The debate begins about viewing Billy as an equal or as a limited person because of his handicap. Signing seems to be admission of a handicap to the family. Sylvia and Billy see signing as an introduction to the world of the Deaf community allowing Billy to both imitate and fully express himself.

steppenwolf theatre

steppenwolf theatre

One of the elements that makes Nina Raine’s play so riveting is the balance presentation of the arguments she presents about the independence verses victimization as well as the levels of communicating and listening, The degrees and hierarchy of the status of the deaf and the argument of singing versus lip reading are completely presented. Tribes is funny yet powerful, emotional and honest. It has wit and fully developed characters in a refreshing story about one family’s search for a common language as well as their struggle to find that place where each can be heard in a loving family whatever that may be. The needs and wants of the ‘tribe’ versus individual desires of each member are dramatically presented. Tribes is a terrific work, well written and structured featuring  outstanding performances especially from Francis Guinan, Steve Haggard and the John McGinty. This is one of the best production of 2013. Don’t miss it!

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: December 17, 2013

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout the Tribes page at

At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, call 312-335-1650,, tickets $20 – $82,  Tuesday thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, some Sundays at 7:30 pm, matinees on select Wednesdays at 2 pm and all Saturdays at 3pm, All Sundays at 3pm, running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes, through February 9, 2014

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