Electric “Tribes” Engages La Jolla Playhouse Audience

by Barry Jagoda

“Tribes,” the wonderful drama currently on stage at The La Jolla Playhouse, did not look all that interesting at first glance but it turns out to be one of the most compelling presentations in years from this potentially wonderful San Diego house of creativity.

Many Playhouse productions have seemed to be tryouts for Broadway, particularly under the leadership of the much heralded Des McAnuff, the former Artistic Director.  But the team of Christopher  Ashley (who replaced Des several years ago) and his sidekick, Managing Director Michael Rosenberg, are making a valiant, and often successful, effort for the Playhouse to become relevant for those who want theater to be stimulating and not merely a site of ego gratification for the swells of La Jolla who come to hear bells and whistles and show up on Opening Night at what they think is world class when it has often been mindless froth.

Not “Tribes.”

This is a brilliant story of family dysfunction, one tribe comprised of an insufferable intellectual father, an overly empathetic mother and three children.  One of their kids, in this British-Jewish home, was born deaf.  The other two are aggressively hungry for their own success in music and academia.  Another tribe started as two deaf parents and their lovely hearing daughter.  When the two young deaf kids meet and fall in love they eventually try to start a third tribe, their own home and love.  This causes the boy—whose folks had forbidden him to learn sign language—to go the other way and completely embrace deaf culture.  Unfortunately his new girl-friend, gifted from birth with hearing but now in her twenties and herself losing it to painful noises of black rushing sounds, (evolving toward her parents and  their “disabled” life-style), announces, “I don’t want to be only deaf.”  Will they break-up?  (Earlier the audience,  including many without hearing, gets a huge laugh at the line, ‘The deaf are the Muslims of the disabled, handicapped world.”)

“Tribes” is a universal, painful story filled with life lessons about cultural relativity  and continuously asking the question of which of the many “tribes” among us is normal.  All six characters are wonderfully cast:  After a while one can easily forget you are inside a theater and begin to think you are at someone’s home in Britain trying to help sort out their problems.  “Tribes” is a treasure for the mind!

(L-R) Thomas DellaMonica, Meghan O’Neill, Russell Harvard, Lee Roy Rogers, Dina Thomas and Jeff Still share top billing in “Tribes

To it’s much appreciated credit the Playhouse has maintained deep skill in  understanding production values, lighting, costuming, set design and casting. Director David Cromer has turned this play into something most always understandable even with deaf characters communicating in the venue of the nearly wrap-around, thrust stage auditorium of the Playhouse Potiker Theater, not a simple task.  Of enormous help are the electronic surtitles flashed all around invoked not only to interpret the large amount of sign language being employed but also for such pedestrian assignments as warning the audience to “turn off cellphones.”  With “Tribes” we have the happy combination of great, unforgettable drama married to La Jolla Playhouse’s expected mastery of production values.  Unlike many Playhouse presentations the story is so good that, finally, the bells and whistles become merely an accompaniment instead of the main focus.

But, dear reader, if you are one seeking more and deeper substance, be advised that Des-the-Knife, like Mack-the-Knife, is back in town and directing an old San Diego favorite, “Sideways,” based on the charming buddy movie about two guys who take a car trip from San Diego to Santa Barbara,  We’ll review, in the next couple of days, what the old La Jolla Playhouse, with direction from the locally (and internationally) much-beloved McAnuff, does with this story.  Will he  have spoiled it trying to make his superficial audience entertained? One high-ranking, and very well informed Playhouse official whispered to this reporter, “I hear Des wants to take “Sideways to Broadway!”   We will let you know in this space next week.  This same Playhouse executive booster was particularly proud that the organization now has what appears to be a successful outreach all over San Diego.  ”We used to present five shows a year but now we have a total of 16 in communities all over the region and this all takes major donations and regular subscribers.”

Meanwhile, back to “Tribes.”  I do hope to be forgiven for turning to the ubiquitous Russian author Leo Tolstoy whose first sentence, in what some believe is the greatest novel of all time, “Anna Karenina,”Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The Anna Karenina Principle describes an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Consequently, a success (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.

In, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” his brilliant book of anthropology and geography, the unsurpassed Southern California intellectual, UCLA Professor Jared Diamond further explains the Karenina principle:  So few wild animals have been successfully domesticated, because a deficiency in any one of a number of factors can make a species “undomesticable.”

At the heart of “Tribes,” a play about language and love, is the question of what is a “deficiency” and what is “normal?”   Nina Raines, the author of the novel on which this production is based, seems to find deafness not really a deficiency, at least compared to the secular, intellectual striving and craziness of the main family on stage.  Go see (and hear) for yourself:  Tribes plays only until July 21.

At the end of the several hour production, which zoomed by on Friday night, July 19, as though in an instant, the sizable deaf contingent in the audience (provided with interpreters to sign for words that could not be heard) rose to their feet waiving arms and hands high, the American Sign Language signal for wild applause.  Others in the audience clapped vigorously in the “more normal” manner while “Bravo” also rang out after an unforgettable night in La Jolla.



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