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Billy was born deaf. His family are "hearing." Without giving him the choice, his parents refused to have him learn sign language. Why? His father, Christopher, fears that signing would identify him with a "minority," even a cult (i.e. a "tribe"), since Christopher's convinced your ideology defines how you see the world.

If that's the case, then Christopher's must be xenophobia. He's a garrulous, "open and politically incorrect" retired teacher, who encouraged Billy to learn "oralism" - speaking and lip-reading - and, in effect, made Billy a minority of one.

When we first see him, Billy's in his late 20s. He's profoundly innocent and treated like a house pet. He's in the room but blocked from the family's heated exchanges and ruthless assessments of each other (young Daniel, when off his meds, stutters "no one will be good enough for this family").

Almost by accident, Billy strays outside. He meets Sylvia, who is slowly going deaf. He falls in love and learns to sign. He sees and hears his family in a brand new way.

The play, by British author Nina Raines, hammers hard on the family's dysfunction. She appears to make them irksome by design. Each is involved in some form of communication; Christopher's contemplating essays; wife Beth's trying to begin a "marriage-breakdown detective novel"; depressed Ruth's a fledgling singer; and mega-depressed Daniel's hacking away at a thesis debunking language's inability to signify.

Each is, at best, half-involved in the new projects, so they take their anxieties out on each other. Billy also starts anew and, finally given the chance, follows through.

Raines jackhammers the point home: this family stifles communication. It doesn't take long for their bickerings to become predictable. Even less time to grate (by design?). They're only at their best when Sylvia plays Debussy's "Clair de lune" on an old piano and they clam up.

Though the play oversells the cacophony (at the expense of Daniel and Ruth, it turns out), it also fascinates. Directed by David Cromer, the production brims with forms of communication: speech, sign, lip-reading, music, body language, facial reactions (Sylvia: "people don't realize how obvious it is in their faces when they don't like you").

Also mis-communication. When Billy and Sylvia sign, subtitles flash, but not for long. If you haven't been alert - as Billy and Sylvia must be every second - you'll miss out.

In these instances Tribes uses audience-participation. The play can exclude you, just as Tanya Sanchez's Kita y Fernanda did at Mo`olelo last year (at least a third was in Spanish; if you didn't know the language, you became as marginalized as the characters).

This technique hits the current malaise: just about everyone these days is distracted - texting, tweeting, cell-phoning, iPod/Padding, TV, etc.Tribes bucks the disturbing trend. You must pay attention in the moment.

The play doesn't privilege one form of communication (in fact, you need them all). And one scene inverts the non-signing family's standard practice. When Beth answers the phone, the others shout and sign what she should say.

The cast, all of whom have performed the show at other venues, have their roles down. Jeff Still's Christopher is so verbally caustic, it's tempting to invoke non-communication and tell him to "shut up!" Lee Roy Rogers (Beth), Dina Thomas (Ruth), and Thomas DellaMonica (Daniel) play with conviction, even the most deliberately grating moments.

Russell Harvard (Billy) and Meghan O'Neill (Sylvia) are eloquent in thought, feeling, and expression.

Tribes was originally staged in-the-round - in part to block sight-lines on purpose (yet another form of audience-exclusion, along with a whole scene done in darkness, and people speaking with their backs to you). For the La Jolla Playhouse, designer Scott Pask added a bleacher for patrons stage left. The set has so many details, you can't take everything in. Though a subtle hint's hard to avoid. Books have been stuffed to the sides of a stairway that rises so steeply it suggests the Tower of Babel.


La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, playing through July 21.

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