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Tribes
by Nina Raine
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 2, 2018

Miles Barbee, Bridgette Bassa
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s 12th season has been titled “Blood is Thicker Than Water”. I’m assuming that by that title, the plays will be examining the concept of family in one way or another. Their latest production, British playwright Nina Raine’s Tribes, looks at the concept of family from various different angles–from literal family to “chosen family” and what those concepts mean to a people who can become caught between two or more distinct groups. It’s an incisive, fascinating script filled with well-drawn characters, and STLAS has brough them to life in this intense, thoughtful and profound production.

The story, set in England, introduces us to a close but occasionally volatile family unit. The parents, professor Christopher (Greg Johnston) and aspiring novelist Beth (Elizabeth Ann Townsend) live with their three adult children–aspiring opera singer Ruth (Hailey Medrano), insecure academic Daniel (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), and Billy (Miles Barbee), who as the only deaf member of the family, has grown up in his hearing family’s world, learning to read lips and, at Christopher’s insistence, never learning sign language. The family is often loud and opinionated, with Billy frequently having to ask them to explain what they’re talking about. Eventually, Billy meets Sylvia (Bridgette Bassa) at a party.. Having grown up as a hearing child of deaf parents, Sylvia is fluent in sign language, and she is able to introduce Billy to the deaf community as she reveals that she herself is gradually going deaf. As the relationship between Billy and Sylvia grows, Syliva is introduced to Billy’s family and Billy begins to discover a new world of possibilities around him just as Sylvia is growing increasingly confused about what the world will be like for her, as Billy’s parents struggle with their son’s increasing independence, and as his siblings deal with a combination of jealousy and dependence. The dynamics are complicated to describe, although they are extremely well played-out, with various implications brought up as natural outgrowths of the characters, their relationships, and where the story takes them. It’s a fascinating play, intricately scripted, with moments of humor and poignant drama blended into an increasingly intense, riveting theatrical experience.

The family dynamic here is extremely well portrayed by an excellent cast. Barbee, who like his character is deaf, plays Billy with strength, sensitivity, and eagerness as Billy discovers more about the world around him, explores the possibilities, and challenges his family’s restrictions and perceptions of him. His chemistry with the equally excellent Bassa is strong, and Bassa is also particularly effective as a young woman who is essentially a part of two worlds but questioning how she fits in to both of them. Lawson-Maeske, as the insecure, struggling Daniel, is also impressive, particularly in his scenes with Barbee, the brother he alternately resents and desperately needs. There are also strong performances from Medrano as the competitive Ruth, Johnston as the belligerent, highly opinionated and controlling Christopher, and Townsend as the conflicted Beth, who seems to genuinely want the best for her children but struggles to understand what that is. It’s a highly emotional play, and thoroughly believable in its relationships and in its use of British Sign Language (BSL) on stage, with American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and supertitles helping to translate.

The world of these characters is brought to life believably in director Annamaria Pileggi’s thoughtful staging and the technical aspects of the play. Patrick Huber’s vividly realized set, video design, and striking lighting make the most of the small stage space at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre. There’s also impressive work from costume designer Megan Harshaw, props designer Jess Stamper, sound designer Jeff Roberts, and dialect coach Pileggi. The accents aren’t universally perfect, but they’re good enough as to not be distracting from the action.

This is a stunning, highly thought-provoking play that covers so many issues in terms of identity, family, and belonging that it’s almost too much to describe. The best thing to do is to see it for yourself, which I highly recommend. Tribes┬áis another impressive production from St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

Cast of Tribes
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Tribes at the Gaslight Theatre until December 16, 2018

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