An award-winning play about a family of British Jews raises thorny, incisive questions about the nature of communication.
As much as you love your family, haven’t there been times when you wished you could push a “mute” button on the cacophonies that are the hallmark of multiple generations of people living under the same roof?
British playwright Nina Raine has taken that wishful thinking one step further. Her play, Tribes, which is being produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in Center City through Feb. 23, deals with the dynamics of a Jewish family in England, where the youngest child, a young adult named Billy, is deaf.
Raine’s play, which opened in London in 2010 and off-Broadway in 2012, was nominated in England for both the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best New Play. It also won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Best New Play and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play — an almost-preordained level of success for the daughter of British poet Craig Raine and the grand-niece of Russian novelist Boris Pasternak.
While Billy is the focal point of Raine’s drama, his sister, Ruth, a struggling opera singer and a poster child for the lasting effects of middle child syndrome, serves to illustrate, both through her choice of profession and of communication methods, just how quickly the placid surface of family interactions can become a roiling storm.
Philadelphia theatergoers may not be familiar with Robin Abramson, who plays Ruth — this is only her second appearance on a local stage. But she has been a known and lauded quantity in Pittsburgh dramatic circles for a number of years, including being named the 2010 Performer of the Year by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She has been appearing in productions there since her graduation from Point Park University in 2003, including a number of plays with the City Theatre Company, which is co-producing Tribes with PTC.
The 32-year-old native of Monroeville, a suburb of Pittsburgh, was most recently seen onstage at the new Penn’s Landing Playhouse in the two-person play, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up.
While Abramson says it has taken some time to get used to the rhythms of Philadelphia, it’s not the first foreign city where she has performed.
“I went on a Birthright Israel trip when I graduated in 2003 and fell in love with the people and the country.”
More specifically, there was also an Israeli boy she had met at Camp Emma Kaufmann in West Virginia, which she had attended for many years as both camper and staffer. To be with him, she says, “I made the leap and made aliyah. I lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for three years and worked for Birthright, leading trips, getting people enrolled, exploring the educational aspects.”
She also made her mark on English-speaking theater in the country, appearing in numerous productions such as The Sound of Music, where she was cast as Maria. She says that the exposure to a foreign culture and having to learn a new language helped her expand her acting range, especially when it comes to speaking in accents for roles like the one in Tribes.
“Learning another language switches something on in your brain that makes it easier to memorize lines and to do dialects,” she explains.
Although she loved her time in Israel, she says, she had to come back.
“The English-speaking theater community in Israel is fantastic, but not nearly as demanding professionally as it is in America. It was more a labor of love than a career — I couldn't support myself financially in Israel doing theater.”
She still has strong ties to Israel and has led two Birthright trips in recent years, but, like her character, the pull of the familiar proved too strong to stay away for too long.
“Family is very much a tribe,” she explains, referring as much to her onstage unit as to her real-life one. “This play is about finding your voice, finding your place within a community, your identity. That community has shaped who I am now, and that Jewish identity follows me around all day long.”
IF YOU GO
Through Feb. 23
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Suzanne Roberts Theatre,
Broad and Lombard Streets, Philadelphia