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Humans are tribal. That social configuration is in our DNA, traceable to Neanderthal eons and before. Group membership originally existed for safety in numbers, one troop of animals banding together against all others. That circle the wagons mentality did not disappear with the invention of the Winchester rifle.  One need only look to today’s political immigration debates for modern, here-at-home evidence of our clannish nationalism. We need an “us” to defend against the “them.”  But when a tribe member leaves the clan, both physical and emotional deprivation affects everyone, including the isolate.

That kind of isolation is what Nina Raine’s awards-winning Tribes, playing on La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum stage, is about.  Raine’s play employs language as the metaphor and a dysfunctional family composed of a mom, Beth, dad, Christopher, and three adult children living at home, Billy, Daniel and Beth, as the vehicle for the theme’s exploration. Mom Beth (capably wrought by Lee Roy Rogers) is a budding novelist; dad Christopher (a blustering Jeff Still) is a retired (foul-mouthed) professor who writes books; Daniel (Thomas DellaMonica, alternately forlorn and acerbic) is a son with psychological issues working on his thesis; depressed daughter Ruth (Dina Thomas, who drew the superfluous short straw in the cast) is trying to be an opera singer. Son Billy (poignantly played by Russell Harvard) fills the fifth seat at the dining table.

Billy, the central character, is deaf from birth. He cannot hear the raucous pseudo-intellectual dining table brawling of the hearing family members, nor can he participate in the verbal fray.  Although he may seem to be the fortunate one for that—there is no real conversation, nor attempt to understand each other in this family’s verbal food fight—his frequent questions about what is  going on show his frustration at being left out.  Billy lip reads, and he speaks softly with a much slower cadence.  He cannot keep up. So, as the other family members attempt to one-up each other about politics and opera and vocally abuse the other two siblings over their recent romantic relationship splits, he is left to his own loneliness in the crowd.

Things shift when Billy meets Sylvia (skillfully wrought by Meghan O’Neill), a signing, but semi-hearing member of the deaf community who is becoming deaf.  When the two become lovers and she teaches Billy ASL, the family tribe senses danger. When Billy becomes an active Deaf community member, gets a job as court lip reading interpreter and leaves home to move in with Sylvia, the clan’s world tilts on its axis. The individual members begin to fall apart together, blaming Sylvia, the entire deaf community, and each other for Billy’s perceived abandonment.  Yet, they want him back. Their weird lives are not the same, and they do not know how to cope. When Billy issues an ultimatum, demanding reconciliation on his ASL-speaking terms, the tribe will either regroup or reject its favorite son, who has encountered some worldly problems of his own.  Suddenly, it is all so complicated.

And not all of that is in a good way, production-wise. Adding to the confusion is sound designer Daniel Kluger’s  periodically interjected cacophony of disharmonic music accompanied by Keith Parham’s simultaneous wacky light shows that could represent either Billy’s struggle with unsound or Sylvia’s loss of sound or the family’s discord, or all of the above. Too dim lighting in some scenes (the wee hours chat between Sylvia and Daniel, for example) cheats audience comprehension at critical junctures.

Scott Pask’s detailed, realistic set allows plenty of movement and dimension.  Designed by Jeff Sugg, projection of some ASL translations is a helpful technique, and its benefits would be increased if more of Billy’s dialogue was similarly captioned. Deaf actor Harvard both speaks and signs, but some of his spoken words are difficult to decipher in the emotional banter going on around him.

Director David Cromer could perform a bit of fine-tuning on this show. He could tone down Jeff Still’s one-dimensional shouting that makes Christopher more a disturbed bully than a stymied father. While he’s at it, he could find a better way to bring all the characters into the dining room-kitchen than having them stumble into a knot, and stand open-mouthed, as Billy delivers his high impact decision to divorce their spoken language.

Some of the distractions in this play belong to the script, awards-winning or no.  There is the thorny but unexplained issue of Daniel’s dependence on Billy and his despair and disintegration over their separation. Daniel hears voices, everyone’s but Billy’s, and he stutters. But he exhibits none of the other symptoms of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. There is Christopher’s potty mouth. Surely, a retired academic can find ways to express himself without f-bombing every other word.

Ruth is simply a token daughter. Her character does little more than hand-wring over a career that will never be and a love-life that does not exist. Mother Beth attempts to comfort her, but she is busy mediating the family members’ continual, eventually tiresome, verbal clashes and inane arguments.

Tribes earned the 2012 Drama Desk and New York Critics Circle Awards  for a reason, though. It has a great deal to say about how we humans bond with each other. Perhaps what is so valuable in this play is its ability to bring a new perspective of a relatively small and oft-mysterious community. Using Billy and Sylvia as focal lenses, understanding of the deaf (small d) and Deaf (capital D) communities can come into the hearing majority’s view.

While Billy’s very real struggles with inclusion and isolation form the foundation of this play, Sylvia’s story is both unique and provocative to a (mostly) hearing audience. She is a woman of one world, transitioning to another. She has no control over the genes that predispose her hearing loss, and, unlike Billy, she has experienced what it is like to be a hearing tribal member. As she wails her response to Billy’s assertion that he knows what it is like to be deaf, “But you do not know what it is like to become deaf,” her dilemma is clear. She is losing a part of herself; Billy is gaining a part of himself. Both will have to come to terms with what tribal transitions eventually mean.

That is a familiar realization to all of us, members of our many tribes.


Tribes continues at La Jolla Playhouse's Mandel Weiss Forum Stage. Performances occur daily through July 21. Dark on Mondays.



Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.