How can you feel a feeling unless you have a word for it?" asks Christopher, a belligerent British intellectual who refuses to recognize signing as language. The question echoes the Sapir-Whorf Thesis, that, as Benjamin Whorf proclaimed: "We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language." Christopher and his wife Beth have raised their deaf son Billy to lip-read and speak English. They feel threatened when Billy, home after completing university, begins learning sign language. Meanwhile, their older son, Daniel, is writing a thesis on the indeterminacy of language. Daughter Ruth is attempting a career in opera. "Opera," says Beth, "expresses feelings you cannot put in words."
In Tribes, which opened in London in 2010, English playwright Nina Raine weds the linguistic skepticism of a Beckett piece to Naturalistic domestic drama. It is the story of a factious, raucous family — Christopher, Beth and their grown children Daniel, Ruth and Billy, all of whom are living at home — that finds harmony in cacophony. Dinnertime conversations erupt into contentious verbal pyrotechnics. Christopher consoles Daniel, distraught over rejection by his girlfriend Haley, by declaring that: "She had all the charisma of a bus shelter." The family — which Raine identifies as Jewish, though there is nothing identifiably Jewish, especially the name Christopher, about them, and though she seems to exploit ethnic stereotypes of Jewish clannishness to support her theme of tribal loyalties — finds unity in hostility.
The tribe's cohesion is challenged when Billy falls in love with Sylvia, the daughter of deaf parents. Sylvia, who is not (yet) deaf, teaches Billy, deaf from birth, sign language. But as Sylvia loses her hearing, her trajectory reverses Billy's; as he is drawn into deaf culture and away from his family, she loses her hearing but also enthusiasm for the insular deaf community. "Making being deaf the center of your identity is the beginning of the end," warns Christopher, who studies Chinese but won't learn sign. Until its facile, sentimental end, Tribes seems set on scattering its characters in a post-Babelic world of competing languages.
The climax to this gloriously multilingual production comes in a "speech" that Billy delivers entirely in sign. Titles translate for the audience. Mark McCarver, as Billy, and McKenna Liesman, as Sylvia, prepared for their roles through extensive, intensive coaching in sign. English characters would use British Sign Language, and, though I presume that McCarver and Liesman employ American Sign Language, they do it fluently. When McCarver speaks, he does so deftly, with the slurred, high-pitched monotone of someone who has never heard his own voice. The rest of the cast — Garry Hoeffler as Christopher, Kathy Couser as Beth, Kimberlyn Gumm as Ruth and John Stillwaggon as Daniel — all speak British English in ways that show how words can still convey strong feelings.