OFFBEAT: Steppenwolf's 'Tribes' uses stage telling to face deafness

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-12-16T00:00:00Z OFFBEAT: Steppenwolf's 'Tribes' uses stage telling to face deafnessBy Philip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

I can only imagine that being able to hear must be similar to an experience of being underwater in a swimming pool: everything surrounding, and swirling about, seemingly coming in waves.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company is now presenting the Chicago-premiere play "Tribes," by Nina Raine, following what was the hit off-Broadway production in 2012.

This is a two-hour and 15 minute stage story, which includes one intermission and has some strong language not suitable for younger children, and has a long run through Feb. 9. It tackles the issue of living with deafness, along with many other life hurdles. So many plot points, in fact, that this is a dramatic telling that can difficult to grasp and follow during some scenes.

Or perhaps, this is exactly the intention and symbolism planned for audiences? Even so, this is a theater ticket requiring audiences to carefully focus and follow more multiple story threads, a few of which, seem to remain threads continuing to be unraveled even at the play's close.

Directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Austin Pendleton, the cast of six features many equally-talented ensemble members.

Francis Guinan and Molly Regan play bickering parents of a trio of grown children, portrayed by Steve Haggard, Helen Sadler and John McGinty, all fighting for their own identities and eager for independence in every way possible, despite all still living in the family home. McGinty, who has also been deaf since birth, plays the lead character Billy, the withdrawn son who also has been deaf since birth and finds new possibilities after meeting Sylvia, played by Alana Arenas, who has her own experiences living in a world without sound since her parents are both deaf.

Following a path of self discovery, the play shows Billy's struggles and desires and his interpretation and definition of the world around him that he knows, as well as the unfamiliar ideas and encounters he must now seek to comprehend. Quick glimpses and tossed around notions and traits are revealed to the audience about the rest of Billy's family. But there's never enough insight, detail and backstory to gain the comprehension needed to care as much as is intended for the relationship outcomes.

While the cast is believable and the strained messages are important, something is still missing by the play's final scenes. More structure and definition of planned plot points would take audiences to an even brighter enlightenment, with less head-scratching about why it's important to care about the introduced flaws of the circle of important people who are connected and not so connected to Billy's world.

Steppenwolf  is committed to making all subscription and Steppenwolf for Young Adults productions accessible by offering American Sign Language-interpreted, open-captioned and audio-described performances, available for $20 for patrons utilizing these programs and their guests. Steppenwolf was named Best Accessible Theatre by the membership of Deaf Illinois in 2011, and was nominated again in 2013 for these efforts. For "Tribes," Steppenwolf builds on this foundation by presenting eight additional performances featuring ASL interpretation or open captioning, donating tickets to area Deaf and hard-of-hearing organizations, and adding captioning for online video content.

Tickets to "Tribes" are $20 to $82. Information: (312) 335-1650 or

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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