As the lights dim at the start of Tribes — British playwright Nina Raine's 2010 play opening the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's 30th season — we hear the sound of an orchestra tuning.
Individually, the sounds of the instruments can convey great beauty and emotion — but when they play simultaneously without direction, the result is cacophony.
That distinction between sound and noise is at the heart of Raine's play, one which raises some thoughtful questions and gets an engaging production at WJT.
It centres on Billy (Jordan Sangalang) and his family. Billy, the only deaf member of the family, has never learned sign language. That changes when he meets Sylvia (Stephanie Sy), who has learned to sign because her parents are deaf. But she's also gradually losing her own hearing, moving her from the "tribe" of those who can hear to that of the deaf community.
Her relationship with Billy also brings her into the orbit of his family, a tribe of "creatives" who are in a constant state of battle with one another, bickering and sparring with often very funny results.
The not-so-subtle irony in Raine's script is that while Billy is the only member of the family who can't hear, he's the only one who ever listens. The others talk over and at each other constantly, able to hear but never truly listening.
The play also raises interesting questions about how our language may shape both personality and the "tribe" we belong to — as Billy learns to sign, is he simply finding a new way to express himself, or does he actually become a different person in a different world?
Raine's script (which runs about two hours here, with intermission) sometimes feels like it wanders in addressing those questions, but is nonetheless intriguing.
Director Ari Weinberg's six-person cast delivers strong performances (with some occasionally iffy British accents, however) in exploring the script's questions. Arne MacPherson gets some of the best lines as the sometimes cruelly blunt patriarch Christopher and he makes the most of them. Ryan James Miller and Paula Potosky are effective as Daniel and Ruth, the self-obsessed and constantly sniping siblings, and Terri Cherniack brings a believable warmth to Beth, the family's peacemaking matriarch.
Raine's leads are, unfortunately, the more weakly written and less interesting characters here. Sy nonetheless gives a good performance as Sylvia, a character who is often stuck as a bridge (and sometimes translator) between worlds here. Sangalang — who is actually deaf — brings a likable charm to Billy, but the character and Sangalang's performance don't get their chance to truly shine until the scenes in which Billy speaks through sign language.
Also impressive at Saturday night's opening performance were a trio of American sign language interpreters (there will be another ASL-interpreted performance on Oct. 26, and the other productions in WJT's season will also have ASL-interpreted performances).
There are bumps along the way in both Raine's script and the production, but Tribes engages with a point that comes across loud and clear — when we speak but aren't heard, we belong nowhere.
Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's production of Tribes runs at the Berney Theatre at the Asper Jewish Community Campus until Oct. 29.