Subscribe for 99¢
Tribes

Miles Barbee and Bridgette Bassa in "Tribes" at St. Louis Actors' Studio. Photo by Patrick Huber

Billy (Miles Barbee), the central character in playwright Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” is the least argumentative member of a family that treats the dining room as a battleground.

Christopher (Greg Johnston), Billy’s aggressively intellectual dad, tends to be the most vocal, but mom Beth (Elizabeth Ann Townsend), sister Ruth (Hailey Medrano) and brother Daniel (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) more than hold their own.

Sometimes, Billy ventures into the fray, but more often he keeps his silence amid the cacophony. That’s partly because he can only follow the conversation by reading lips. But it’s also because he feels that his family has never accepted the fact that he’s deaf.

His gradual realization that he deserves to be heard — and on his own terms — is at the heart of the funny, provocative, and beautifully acted St. Louis Actors’ Studio production.

The catalyst for Billy’s transformation is Sylvia (Bridgette Bassa), a young woman whose parents are deaf — and who’s gradually losing her hearing. Billy immediately identifies her as a kindred spirit, and although she claims to have a boyfriend, it’s clear that the attraction is mutual.

Not only does their romance force Sylvia to confront her fears about adjusting to another way of life, it also upsets Billy’s family dynamic. Particularly his relationship with Daniel, whose insecurities come to the fore in unexpected ways.

Director Annamaria Pileggi brings a sensitive touch to this insightful comedy-drama about the strengths and strains of family ties. Raine has a sure feel for dialogue that gets to the essence of the characters. And the cast is excellent.

Barbee persuasively traces Billy’s arc from acquiescence to self-reliance. And Bassa and Lawson-Maeske, who appeared in small roles in the recent St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “The Little Foxes,” engagingly fulfill the demands of their complex roles.

“Tribes” eloquently argues that it’s impossible to be heard unless someone is listening.

Calvin Wilson is theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.