Billy’s family members love to talk, and when they argue, they all talk at once. Everyone but Billy, that is — he’s been deaf since birth, and that gives him a measure of shelter from the verbal storm. But it also makes him something of an outsider in his own home.
What Billy hears and doesn’t hear, says and doesn’t say, is at the heart of the new Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of “Tribes.” Nina Raine’s provocative and often very funny drama, vibrantly staged by director Jonathan Moscone in its regional premiere, considers what happens when Billy decides to seek a new conversation.
Heading this smart and fiercely contentious clan are Billy’s parents — Christopher, an imperious academic who never misses a chance to insult anyone, and Beth, an amateur author working on a “marriage breakup detective novel.”
Billy and his siblings — Dan, a depressed man rebounding from a breakup, and Ruth, languishing in her aspirations as an opera singer — have just moved back to the family home, and the atmosphere is thick with barbed witticisms. Billy is beloved, but seldom included in their raucous fights: the others mostly treat him like furniture.
Then he meets Sylvia. Raised by deaf parents, she’s losing her hearing; she doesn’t read lips, but she’s mastered sign language. Billy, at his family’s insistence, has never learned to sign. But when Sylvia starts to teach him, Billy embraces the deaf community — the very step Christopher has always warned him not to take — and his loyalties begin to blur.
Moscone’s production mostly plays out in the family’s book-lined living room, with the warmth and clutter of Todd Rosenthal’s set, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, and Jake Rodriguez’s sound designs facilitating shifts to public spaces and Sylvia’s room.
The actors deliver Raine’s dense, quicksilver writing in subtle performances.
James Caverly, an actor with the National Theatre of the Deaf who played Billy in Boston and Washington, D.C., reprises the role here with expressive fervor. Nell Geisslinger is a graceful, eloquent Sylvia.
Paul Whitworth’s bombastic Christopher, Dan Clegg’s volatile Daniel, Anita Carey’s alert Beth and Elizabeth Morton’s wispy Ruth make essential contributions.
At times, the verbiage gets a bit thick, and the production seems about to stall in white noise. But “Tribes” comes together in the second act. In its exploration of what it means to connect, to be heard, to belong, Raines’ drama of speech and silence rings true.
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays; closes May 18
Tickets: $29 to $99