Chicago Theatre Review
All in the Family
Sometimes seated around the dinner table, often popping into the kitchen as they attack each other with verbal barbs, the five family members seem like a typical family, albeit an intellectual, creative, extremely verbal and somewhat dysfunctional tribe who express their love for one another (as well as their discontent with their own lives) through insults. Through the shouting and turmoil the audience slowly begins to notice that one of the family, Billy, is just sitting quietly observing and eating. He hasn’t joined in the ridicule nor has he been part of any discussions. We soon learn that Billy has been deaf from birth. He’s been “listening” to everyone by reading their lips, a skill his parents taught him early in life so that Billy might fit into regular society. Billy has even learned to talk, though he’s never heard the human voice. However, as a result of his upbringing, neither Billy nor his family have ever learned to sign, thus isolating him and preventing him any interaction with the deaf community.
Austin Pendleton directs Nina Raine’s highly charged drama with great care and affection. This play, which won both the Drama Desk and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 2012 with David Cromer’s fierce Off-Broadway critically acclaimed production, premiered three years ago in London.
In it Raine explores the notion that, not only is the family unit a kind of tribe, but each individual also represents a tribe of his own. Then there are the many tribes to which people belong within their various professional and social groups that have just as much impact on the individual. For Billy, until he meets and falls in love with Sylvia, a young woman who was born hearing but has been gradually going deaf, the Deaf Community was unknown. Once Sylvia introduces him, Billy not only knows what he’s been missing but that he feels he doesn’t really belong to any tribe. He understands most of what his hearing family says via lip reading, but he can’t understand the nuances found in a person’s volume or tone. Sarcasm is lost on Billy; so are music and the sounds of laughter or crying. He shares a lack of hearing with the Deaf Community but he doesn’t understand sign language and thus cannot communicate with them.
A debate that has existed for years is explored through this story: are individuals who have special needs better met through inclusion or seclusion? Billy realizes that his family never made an effort to learn or teach him sign language, but have also isolated him from the Deaf Community, as well. When Billy chooses his peers over his family, his parents reason that they were only trying to help their son fit in with society; but there’s an entire component of society, the Deaf tribe, to which Billy should belong, but can’t.
Pendleton’s cast is excellent. Leading the clan is the strong character actor, long-time Steppenwolf ensemble member, Francis Guinan as Christopher and the brilliant, pitch-perfect Molly Regan as his wife Beth. Both strong-willed parents, different as day and night, seem always at odds with each other while volleying for control over their three twenty-something, live-at-home kids. Helen Sadler, in the less-showy role of daughter Ruth, is a lonely young woman searching for her musical voice and desperate for a boyfriend. Daniel, as played by the terrific Steve Haggard, is a loner whose head is filled with voices while given to stuttering and who relies on the company of his deaf brother, Billy. John McGinty brings a pure honesty and depth of emotion to Billy, the young man who’s the glue that binds everyone together. Alana Arenas, although sensitive and lovely as Sylvia, doesn’t seem to share much romantic chemistry with McGinty. As a result their love story becomes simply the impetus for Billy’s rebellion against his family, and the final scene loses some of its impact.
Never-the-less, Pendleton’s production is strong and moving and offers a great deal of unexpected humor, particularly in Act I. There are beautiful, subtle moments in this production that touch the heart. Details, such as Walt Spangler’s realistic, contemporary set, John Boesche’s precise interpretations of the signed dialogue and Rachel Anne Healy’s naturalistic costuming help make this play feel like a slice of life. And then there’s John McGinty who brings life to Ms. Raine’s story, reminding audiences of everyone’s need to belong to their own tribe.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Dec. 15-Feb. 9 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-335-1650 or by visiting www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.