Tribes is edgy and enlightening

Deaf actor Jack Volpe shines in his debut role in Nina Raine’s tale of identity and community, on now at the Segal Centre.

3536 Daniel Brochu, Andrea Runge, Jack Volpe, Toni Ellwand TRIBES (Photo by Andrée Lanthier)

Daniel Brochu, Andrea Runge, Jack Volpe and Toni Ellwand in Tribes. Photo by Andrée Lanthier

Life is easier if you’re part of a group.

Of course, it takes courage to find your people, and even greater gumption to abandon the community you were born into. This truth about identity is at the heart of Tribes, Nina Raine’s award-winning play, directed by Sarna Lapine, on now at the Segal Centre.

Billy and his siblings are a little like the trio in The Royal Tenenbaums — smart but stunted. They live with their eccentric, intellectual parents in a suffocating upscale London home. Ruth (Lisa Norton) is a lonely, fledgling singer, Daniel (Daniel Brochu) is a would-be academic who hears voices in his head and Billy (Jack Volpe), a recent grad living back at home, is deaf.

Christopher and Beth (played by entertaining IRL couple Greg and Toni Ellwand), are caught up in their own pet projects and fighting when they’re not haranguing their offspring.

Andrea Runge and Jack Volpe Tribes. Photo by Andrée Lanthier
Andrea Runge and Jack Volpe Tribes. Photo by Andrée Lanthier

While the others mope, whine and bicker, Billy sits amid them like the eye of a hurricane, oblivious to their nattering. (Would that we could tune them out, too.)

His parents raised him with no exposure to the deaf community, in a bid to make him as “normal” as possible. That is, until Billy meets Sylvia (Andrea Runge) a woman from a deaf family who is slowly losing her own hearing.

She invites Billy into the deaf community — a world we don’t really witness onstage — and he begins to reevaluate his core group, his family and how he was raised.

Playwright Raine, who had no connection to deaf culture, has said she was inspired to write the story when she saw a documentary about a pregnant deaf couple who hoped their child would be born like them. Tribes is an eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the challenges of living as a deaf person; however, the play’s themes of identity, hierarchy and struggle are the universal motifs of any minority group.

While Tribes offers a lot of zingy banter and chewy debate on communication and disability, the pacing is off. The first half is an overly long scene setter, while all the action is awkwardly crammed into the second half.

Billy is our hero, but Raine telegraphs his solitude by spending more time on the noise of his relatives’ lives than on his. His beautiful, unfolding romance with Sylvia feels like a relative afterthought.

French theatre la Licorne staged Tribes in French earlier this fall, but cast a hearing actor as Billy. The Segal, however, wisely hired Jack Volpe, a deaf actor and anglo-Italian Montrealer making this his professional acting debut.

Volpe grew up deaf in a hearing family, like Billy. When he’s not working as an ASL instructor, the Concordia film graduate puts in time as a director and actor with Seeing Voices Montreal, an arts group that works with deaf and hard-of-hearing performers.

As a community partner of the Segal’s production, the group is getting an excellent opportunity to spread word of its worthy mission.

Tribes may not be an artistic triumph, but it’s probably one of the most enlightening shows you’ll see this year.

Tribes continues at the Segal Centre (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine) until Dec. 20. Run-time is about 2 hours 10 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission. See more details at the Segal’s website, and call the box office here: 514-739-7944. There will be ASL interpretation on Dec. 13 for the 2 p.m. matinee. Tickets cost $59, or $24.50 for students, $35 for non-students under 30 and $53 for seniors.