Springfield Contemporary Theatre Show Looks at Hearing and Communicating in a Different Way

Aug 7, 2015

The Springfield area premiere of "Tribes" runs August 7-23 at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza.
Credit (Poster design courtesy Springfield Contemporary Theatre)

Springfield Contemporary Theatre presents Tribes by Nina Raine, winner of the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Best Play, and directed by Rick Dines, August 7-23 at SCT Center Stage, corner or Robberson and Pershing in downtown Springfield.  According to Rick “it’s a very fascinating play, a beautifully written piece that concerns this very eccentric, academic English family.  I had never read a play like this—it was so honest, and told a story I’d never heard told before.” The New York Times calls Tribes "a smart, lively…play that asks us to hear how we hear, in silence as well as in speech." 

Billy was born deaf into a comically dysfunctional, idiosyncratic and politically-incorrect hearing family--none of whom has ever bothered to learn sign language.  Cindy Lear plays Billy’s hearing (and non-signing) mother.  It’s her first appearance with SCT, and it’s easy to see why she wanted to get involved: she is the co-owner of Associates in Sign Language, a local company that provides sign language interpreting services.  She says this very situation—deaf child born into a hearing family who never learn sign language—is actually “very typical. Parents have a deaf child, and they are in grief, and they want that child to be ‘normal.’ So it’s a dilemma: do we teach our child sign language—and then they’re part of this ‘minority group’—or do we have them be ‘oral’?” That is, force the child to lip-read in order to keep up as best they can with the hearing world around them... and to learn to speak, again as best they can.  As Cindy says, even the best lip-readers have only about a 30 percent comprehension rate—and that’s among hearing people!

Thus, Billy misses a lot during his upbringing... but he’s coped rather brilliantly with his family’s unconventional ways, even while they’ve never bothered to return the favor. Then one night, while home from college, Billy decides to attend a deaf party, and there meets a young woman named Sylvia (played by Jill Kamler), who was born hearing to deaf parents but is now on the verge of losing her own hearing. Says director Rick Dines, “they hit it off and began dating, and she begins teaching him to sign, and he gets more integrated into the deaf community.”  Billy is inspired to rebel against his family and struggle not only for self-identity but also to finally be understood.

Cindy Lear has a niece who is deaf and was raised “orally,” with her parents wanting her to talk and lip-read. She “went through her entire college career lip-reading, and really didn’t discover sign language” until Cindy encouraged her. Then at age 28 or 29 the young woman really did start to get angry with her family for not exposing her to this whole other part of her community, and not helping her understand everything going on around her.”

Playing the non-signing mother has been a real challenge for Cindy Lear, “because I literally have to sit on my hands for wanting to sign—our character Billy will be signing, and I want to answer right away! Rick had to remind me, ‘You cannot respond!’”

Nathan Johnston, who plays Billy, is himself deaf with a coclear implant, and Cindy and Rick acknowledge that some of his spoken dialogue might not always be “clear” to the hearing audience. But as Cindy says, ‘This is the reality of communicating with this individual.” Adds Rick, “the play is brilliantly written in that regard, that when you really have to know what (Billy) says—you’ll know. Other characters may repeat back key words so that you go, ‘Okay, I know what he said now.’”

The cast also includes Actors’ Equity member George Cron as Billy’s father, along with Andie Bottrell, and Eli Cunningham.  All performances of Tribes will be interpreted for the deaf by ASL sign-language interpreters. In addition, there will be supertitles for the hearing audience during those portions of the show that are signed—and thus unspoken—by the characters onstage.

This show contains adult language and content. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm August 7-23 at SCT Center Stage. In addition, there will be talk-backs with the cast and director following the Sunday August 16 matinee and the evening performance Friday August 21st. Also, there will be a panel discussion, “Listening With Your Eyes,” on Monday evening August 17th at 7:00pm at SCT Center Stage, with a six-person panel of experts discussing issues related to the deaf and hard-of-hearing.  It’s free and open to the public.  For tickets to performances of Tribes, call SCT at 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.