If you couldn’t understand what your family was saying, would you understand them better or worse?
Nina Raines’s ”Tribes” opens with four Britons hurling abuse at each other around the kitchen table. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s mostly just crass and painful: Mom, Dad, brother and sister describing one another’s passions, hopes, beliefs, and sex lives in the most contemptuous terms possible. The fifth member of the family is deaf and yeah, you do feel that perhaps he’s the lucky one.
As the play moves forward, the younger characters get shades and nuance. (The parents, and especially the cartoonishly self-centered father, remain pretty much the same.) Daniel (Richard Gallagher), the hearing son, shows flashes of haunted vulnerability which reveal a gulf of misery under cover of vituperation. The entire family has raised Billy (James Caverly, who starts off with a beatific smile which is clearly at least partly a mask or role) to read lips rather than to sign. They’ve developed an ideological resistance to anything which smacks of Deaf culture.
They genuinely believe they’re protecting Billy, but they’re also terrified of losing their beloved son and brother to a culture which can promise him a kind of belonging they can’t offer. When that masky smile finally slips and Billy says that they view him as the family mascot, the audience can tell that it’s not true: If anything, he’s the family conscience, the only one they allow to be good, the only one they’ll openly love. Of course, he’s also the only one they never need to listen to.