Review: Tribes (Steppenwolf Theatre)

| December 16, 2013
Francis Guinan and Molly Regan in Tribes, Steppenwolf Theatre        

Written by Nina Raine  
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru Feb 15  |  tickets: $20-$82   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
                   Read review


Frustrating staging spoils exciting acting, intriguing themes


Francis Guinan, Alana Arenas, Steve Haggard, Helen Sadler, John McGinty and Molly Regan in Tribes at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Steppenwolf Theatre presents

Review by John Olson

Nina Raine’s play has been warmly received in London, New York and now is being performed in regional theaters across the US. It’s a play filled with important questions and ideas, posed through six believable and fascinating characters. The story of a young deaf man and his hearing family, who raised him to lip read and speak so that he might be fully integrated into society rather than learn sign-language and be confined to the community of hearing-impaired; the play is a deep meditation on the very nature of communication. Yes, the title is Tribes, and the play is also concerned about a deaf man, Billy (John McGinty) and his decision to choose to affiliate with the “tribe” of hearing-impaired people and how that relates to the “tribe” of his hearing family. Alana Arenas and Molly Regan in Tribes, Steppenwolf TheatreCommunication seems the stronger theme here, though. Billy’s family – a highly educated tribe including his university professor father (Francis Guinan), his aspiring novelist mother (Molly Regan), PhD candidate brother (Steve Haggard) and opera singer hopeful sister (Helen Sadler) – are very verbal. Arguments around the dinner table, where much of the action is set, are a common family occurrence, often speaking over each other so that even those of normal hearing ability can make little sense of it all. In the midst of the petty arguments and joking that open the play, we see how Billy is inadvertently excluded from much of the discussion. Either through their speaking at once (can a person read two sets of lips simultaneously?) or by speaking where their faces are not visible to Billy, he’s frequently unable to comprehend what’s going on. When he asks to be let in on the conversation he often gets a dismissive “it was just a joke” or a summary so sketchy as to be meaningless. Though the family is high on verbal ability, they’re low on empathy. Billy is not the only victim. The father, Christopher, who teaches criticism, is a harsh critic of his wife and kids – whether judging their creative and/or intellectual endeavors or their life choices. His critiques are given all in the cause of “honesty,” and feelings be dammed. Son Daniel has picked up some of this nastiness from his father. The women are more benign, but generally insufficiently intuitive. There’s an axiom that the key to interpersonal communication is to “seek first to understand, then be understood” but it’s a lesson this university-educated family has failed to learn.

While Raine’s themes are intriguing, I’m not certain how fair a review I’ll be able to provide of this script, thanks to the infuriating direction by the normally top-rate Austin Pendleton that leaves much of the stage action obscured from view. I was uncomfortable upon assuming my seat to find much of Walt Spangler’s realistic set of a contemporary upper-middle class home blocked by walls in the set. While fortunately most of the action took place stage right near my seat – especially the scenes at the dinner table where so much of the action occurs – there were many other moments in which actors were placed on the downstage apron with one actor’s back to a large portion of the audience and entirely blocking their scene partner from view. This would be irritating enough when viewing any play, but much in this script is deliberately non-verbal and I believe my (and much of the audience’s) comprehension were severely compromised. At first I thought I was just in a bad seat, but as Pendleton’s blocking kept actors statically blocking each other from view for long periods of time, it occurred to me that it may have been Pendleton’s intention. Even Walt Spangler’ sets seem deliberately designed to obscure visibility. It struck me that audiences sitting house right would have an impaired view of the crucial action at the dinner table at stage right. I was unable to see the action staged on stage left (of which thankfully there wasn’t much). Spangler’s also had a second story bedroom but I can’t tell you if any actors ever went up there. If Pendleton intentionally staged the play to obscure visibility in order to force us to empathize with Billy – to force us to understand the importance of the non-verbal as well as the verbal in communication – he took the idea way too far. If it was unintentional, it’s simply bad direction.

Steve Haggard and John McGinty in Tribes, Steppenwolf Theatre Steve Haggard, John McGinty, Helen Sadler and Molly Regan in Tribes, Steppenwolf Theatre.
Alana Arenas and John McGinty in Tribes, Steppenwolf Theatre Molly Regan and Helen Sadler in Tribes, Steppenwolf Theatre

That said, Pendleton gets some terrific performances from his cast. From the opening scene, they’re fully natural and believable. Guinan’s Christopher is arrogant, to be sure, but we clearly see where he’s coming from, as well as his utter devotion to intellectual honesty and pursuit of knowledge. Haggard makes an intensely complex character of Daniel – sad, struggling with mental illness and fighting a speech impediment (stuttering) of his own. Regan and Sadler keep a modicum of humanity in the family. The deaf actor John McGinty is supremely touching as Billy, expressing his pain and all sorts of emotions physically as well as verbally. And the amazingly versatile Alana Arenas – the outsider who inadvertently sets off conflict in this family after she meets and begins to date Billy – is once again wonderful. As a woman born with hearing, but who is gradually losing it, her frustration with all the tribes – the hearing impaired community, those of normal hearing ability, her family, Billy’s family – and her frustration with her own declining abilities – is palpable. She and McGinty provide such strong performances that I’m fairly certain I would have empathized with their characters just as fully even if I’d been able to see and hear everything on stage.

Rating: ★★½

Tribes continues through February 9th February 15th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm/7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm/7:30pm (check calendar as day/times change because of the holidays).  Tickets are $20-$82, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)

John McGinty, Molly Regan, Francis Guinan, Helen Sadler and Steve Haggard in Tribes, Steppenwolf Theatre Chicago.

Photos by Michael Brosilow




Alana Arenas (Sylvia), Francis Guinan (Christopher), Steve Haggard (Daniel), John McGinty (Billy), Molly Regan (Beth), Helen Sadler (Ruth)

behind the scenes

Austin Pendleton (director), Delia Baseman (assistant director), Walt Spangler (scenic design), Rachel Anne Healy (costume design), Keith Parham (lighting design), Josh Schmidt (sound design, original music), John Bosche (projection design), Michael Driscoll (assistant director), Emma Deane (assistant lighting designer), Erica Daniels (casting), Michelle Medvin (stage manager), Christine D. Freeburg (assistant stage manager), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Michael Brosilow (photos).

Steve Haggard and John McGinty in Tribes, Steppenwolf


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Category: 2013 Reviews, John Olson, Steppenwolf

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