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theatre review

In Tribes, Billy (Stephen Drabicki), a deaf man, is taught sign language by Sylvia (Holly Lewis).David Hou

To borrow the words of David Bowie, don't you wonder sometimes about sound and vision? Well, Nina Raine's Tribes will have you wondering about them a lot.

Raine's exceptional play, getting its Canadian premiere from Theatrefront at the Berkeley Street Theatre, pits the hearing world against the deaf one as it questions how we communicate. Is sign language better at expressing emotions than spoken words – or inadequate when it comes to conveying nuance? Do we use speech to build barriers rather than to connect? Is an existence without music a poorer one?

The play is also, as its title suggests, about groups and exclusivism. At its centre is Billy (Stephen Drabicki), the youngest and only deaf child in his family. And a noisier, wordier tribe you couldn't imagine: Father Christopher (Joseph Ziegler) is a vociferous and pedantic critic; mother Beth (Nancy Palk) is a novelist; older brother Daniel (Dylan Trowbridge) is writing a thesis about language; sister Ruth (Patricia Fagan) is an aspiring opera singer. When they get together over dinner, Billy is all but forgotten amid the hubbub.

In a loving but misguided (and selfish) decision, Billy's family has chosen not to learn sign language so that he won't feel disadvantaged. But, of course, he is. Despite having developed awesome lip-reading skills and receiving a sonic assist from hearing aids, he's forever out of step. In a clan of slashing verbal duellists, he's been handed a rubber sword.

Then empowerment comes in the form of Sylvia (Holly Lewis), a young woman with deaf parents who is also losing her hearing. She introduces a smitten Billy to her tribe – the deaf community – and teaches him to sign. She also finds a lucrative way for him to use his lip-reading prowess, rousing the jealousy of the unemployed and underachieving Daniel and Ruth, who have both moved back home.

British playwright Raine, the grand-niece of Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak, is admirably tough-minded in her treatment of both tribes. The supercilious attitude of Ziegler's Christopher, the defender of words, turns out to have its counterpart in the deaf community. And Billy's conversion to that tribe is not without its cult-ish aspects. It is only toward the end that Raine betrays some of her great-uncle's sentimentality, tugging too hard at our heartstrings in the final scene.

But for the most part this is a witty, gutsy and involving drama, which has already picked up its share of accolades in Britain – where it premiered in 2010 at London's Royal Court Theatre – and off-Broadway. Theatrefront's production, part of the Canadian Stage season, is ably directed by Daryl Cloran and powered by some terrific acting.

Drabicki, a hard-of-hearing actor, is highly effective as Billy, whose growing confidence is at first heartening and then later, alarming, as he begins to display some hitherto hidden traits of arrogance and dishonesty. Lewis's mousy Sylvia, meanwhile, poignantly articulates the anguish of gradual and irretrievable hearing loss.

Moonlighting Soulpepper stalwarts Ziegler and Palk bring their own married-couple chemistry to Christopher and Ruth. But a scruffy, bespectacled Ziegler has the best lines and the most fun as the razor-tongued paterfamilias who makes a virtue of political incorrectness. His addiction to outrageous metaphors leads to a hilarious moment when Billy has to "sign" for Sylvia one of his father's quips about fornicating with a cement mixer.

Trowbridge and Fagan, however, are less successful as Billy's siblings. A fragile-looking Trowbridge is suitably pathetic as the mentally and emotionally unstable Daniel, but he can't keep us from sensing that the character is too contrived. And while Fagan is acceptable as Ruth, her British accent keeps slipping off to reveal the Canadian one underneath.

That flaw is especially noticeable in a play that is continually drawing our attention to sounds. Cloran's staging opens with the thunderous cacophony of an orchestra tuning up, and throughout we hear snatches of Mozart, Debussy, Queen – all reminders of the auditory pleasures Billy has never known and Sylvia is going to lose. (The sound design is by the estimable Richard Feren.) At the same time, there's a strong visual component, with Lorenzo Savoini projecting surtitles on the blue walls of his dining-room set to interpret Lewis and Drabicki's fluid sign language.

This is one show that leaves you with your eyes and ears wide open, having acquired a fresh appreciation of both senses.