By Nina Raines
Translated by Shlomo Moskovitz, Tom Avni
Directed by Roni Pinkowitz
Bet Lessin, June 26
Tribes’ major theme, aptly enough, is that we are tribal; each group, each family is its own tribe with its customs, rules, hierarchies and so on. The problems of Billy and his family illustrate and enforce, and sometimes transcend, that theme.
When born-deaf Billy (Yedidya Vital), already a skilled lip-reader, learns to sign from his going-deaf girlfriend Sylvia (Agam Rudberg) his newfound skill causes great consternation in his dysfunctional family. He won’t speak, he tells them, because what they hear is not what he has been saying, not really.
“You waved me like a flag,” he signs swiftly and bitterly as Sylvia translates into words, “I don’t feel like part of this family.”
Taking place on Bambi Fridman and Anna Ziv’s living room set – that rear wall of books is great – the multi-award-winning Tribes asks what it actually means to hear, and what do we actually communicate when we speak, whether with hands or mouth.
“Sticks and stones will break my bones/But words will never hurt me.” Not true, especially not when people talk at rather than with each other. The prime culprit here, powerfully realized by Yuval Segal, is Billy’s voluble dad, Christopher, whose mean spates hide an inner emptiness.
In fact, it’s only when Billy meets Sylvia at a club that he begins to learn what it is, what it means to speak. And it’s only when Billy repudiates speech that his family begins to hear him, especially what he’s not saying and what they have not been saying all of his life.
Blossoming under Roni Pinkowitz’ sensitive direction, the six-member cast intelligently informs Nina Raines’ biting text . The always admirable Yael Leventhal manages to keep bewildered Beth, the mother, always a step behind. Or Ben-Melech allows brother Daniel a fine edge of need and desperation, while Lorin Mosseri gives full value to sister Ruth’s destructive self-image.
It’s Vital and Rudberg, though, who rivet us. Not just because Vital so perfectly reproduces the affect-less speech of the deaf, not just because they sign so well, not just because we see Sylvia’s growing anguish, but because they are genuine.
“I can’t live just with deaf people,” says Sylvia desperately towards the end of the play, bringing us back to the title and the theme and oh, how we really hear her.