The QC Theatre Workshop's Tribes didn't start off well for me on Friday, as I immediately hated Adam Cerny's overacting, with eye rolls so huge I was sure anyone in the lobby could see them through the curtain that separates it from the performance space. So I prepared myself for two hours of such overly dramatic physicality, after first cursing director Jennifer Popple for casting Cerny as a son in playwright Nina Raine's troubled-family saga.
It didn't take long, however, for Cerny to completely change my mind, as it became clear that his Daniel is, himself, over-dramatic, given that his manic figure hears voices in his head. Cerny's characterization, it turns out, isn't bad acting; it's actually spot-on, and moved me from initial dislike - agreeing with Michael Carron's crotchety, opinionated patriarch Christopher that Daniel should "F--- off!" - to sympathetic pity for this troubled person. It was also through Daniel's viewpoint that I experienced Raine's story of a constantly arguing family that cruelly teases each other, with their only sense of grounding coming from Calvin Vo's Billy, the clan's ever-patient, deaf-from-birth younger son.
Daniel remains appropriately overplayed throughout Cerny's performance, but the actor impressively shades his characterization depending on his interactions. With Christopher, Daniel is acerbic and biting, with their verbal tussles among the highlights of the play. Carron plays talkative, condescending, intelligent men exceedingly well, and Cerny holds his own against him, their conversational sparring peppered with familiarity and dark humor. With Susan Perrin-Sallak as Daniel's frequently defeated, discontented mother Beth, Cerny mimics Christopher's condescension (like a son becoming his father), treating her with pitiless mockery. There's a bit more biting fun in Daniel's interactions with his sister, Stephanie Seward's self-conscious Ruth, that seems drawn from sibling rivalry, as the two compete for their parents' attention by promoting their personal achievements.
It's Vo's cool, collected Billy, however, who brings out the best in Daniel. As the family argues while sitting around scenic designer Susan Holgersson's somewhat rustic, middle-class-dining-room set, Daniel frequently turns to his younger brother to grasp a sense of relative sanity in the midst of the verbal and emotional chaos. Billy is Daniel's center, the only one who can quiet the voices in Daniel's head, and there's a tenderness in their relationship as Vo's Billy expresses sincere concern for his brother. In this family, that fraternal love, and the few words spoken between the sons, are a treasured respite, and as Billy's hearing aid allows him to hear only so much - he's left out of conversations when he can't see lips to read them - he doesn't speak often. (When he does, Vo offers a notably accurate vocalization - employing soft consonants and a nasal sound - true to that of a deaf person.)
It's Billy's eventual departure from the household that finally breaks Daniel. After meeting Jessica Denney's Sylvia, who is going deaf herself, Billy is introduced to the Deaf community, and finds that he likes having a place where he fits in with others. Feeling, as he says, like a sort of mascot to his biological family, Billy becomes aware that their efforts in not treating him like a deaf person - refusing to teach him sign or learn it themselves - are more selfish than loving. Denney's vivacious yet slowly crumbling Sylvia opens Billy's eyes to a world he'd previously rejected, and shows him love and a future apart from his family, but the young man's newfound independence doesn't sit well with the others - especially Daniel, whose emotional issues only increase.
The truest beauty in Raine's script, and in Popple's staging, comes from the unspoken moments as Billy and Sylvia converse in sign, with projection designer Alexander Richardson casting supertitles above their heads. The effect impressively approximates the experience of communicating in sign, and I found myself most attentive to the play during the points in which I both read the words and watched the actors "speak" them with their hands. (As a former sign-language interpreter in college, I give credit to the show's signing coach Dick Vallandingham, as Vo's and Denney's signing is remarkably accurate - and it's true sign, not merely signed English.)
There is deep emotion in the QC Theatre Workshop's Tribes that's abundantly obvious in Cerny's performance and subtly stirring in Vo's. When these two come together, like emotional oil and water, there's a lovely connection created that permeates the performance space and left me with feelings that reached the core of my very being, contemplating life, relationships, and the perils of self-centered existence.
(Full disclosure: My partner has been a financial contributor to the QC Theatre Workshop.)
Tribes runs at the QC Theatre Workshop (1730 Wilkes Avenue, Davenport) through June 28, and a performance with an American Sign Language interpreter will be held on Sunday, June 21 at 3 p.m. More information and tickets are available by calling (563)650-2396 or visiting QCTheatreWorkshop.org.