In moments both rich and hollow, ‘Tribes’ explores the battlefield of family

Jacob Coakley

Three and a half stars

Tribes Through January 24; Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m., $10-$15. Las Vegas Little Theatre, 702-362-7996.

What is essential for one person to communicate with another? And are there things too important to be communicated in only one medium? Tribes, playing in Las Vegas Little Theatre’s Fischer Black Box, dissects the damaging and uplifting ways families communicate, with the verve—and confusion—of a real family fight.

Billy (Ace Gilliam) is deaf. Newly graduated from college, he returns home to live with his hyper-articulate, hyper-competitive family—whose members make no concessions for his deafness, expecting him to keep up in arguments or be left out. Conversely, his deafness makes him a safe harbor for them, as they imprint on him their own insecurities. But when he learns sign language from Sylvia (Jasmine Kojouri), a full-fledged member of the deaf community, he begins to change.

When Gilliam and Kojouri share the stage, Tribes comes alive. There’s real chemistry between them, with sparks flying through conversation, gestures and looks. Their scenes of flirting and fighting, dealing with their own communication issues, are funny, tender, even heartbreaking, as they discover the boundaries of their relationship. This energy carries over to scenes where Sylvia joins Billy and his family, with one of the most ingenious and blistering family argument scenes in the genre. The cast (Sarah Spraker, Glenn Heath, Josh Sigal and Charlene Moskal) wrings the most out of it, crafting a roaring, ragged dispute that pits them all against each other.

The rest of the show’s emotions are murky, half-heard. Gilliam’s Billy doesn’t quite convey why he takes the turns he takes. Under the direction of T.J. Larsen and Jacob Moore, the production seems content to leave him as the repository for everyone else’s emotional projection, not showing enough of his own engine. On the other hand, Sigal’s portrayal of Dan is a little too sharp. His descent into inarticulateness is less affecting, thanks to a hangdog desperation too evident from the start and some stage pictures in scene transitions that oversell his relationship with Billy. As for the rest of the family, zippy one-liners earn laughs, but there’s little sense of shared affection, so the arguments come off simply cruel, not quirky. And while everyone has a clear relationship with Billy, their confused relationships with each other, and the undercurrents there, feel hollow.

Technically, the show was one of the most accomplished I’ve seen in the Black Box, with subtle lighting from Kendra Harris and excellent sound design from Arles Estes. There’s some fuzziness in this play, but the emotions still come through, like an argument on the other side of the apartment wall.

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