The sound of silence echoes with meaning in "Tribes."

British playwright Nina Raine got the idea for her breakthrough play from a documentary she watched about a deaf couple expecting a baby. They hoped their child would be born deaf as well. She began to wonder about the things we inherit from our parents and how families define their identity as a clan.

"Parents take great pleasure in witnessing the qualities they have managed to pass on to their children. Not only a set of genes. A set of values, beliefs. Even a particular language," she writes in her program notes for the play, which is making its hotly anticipated regional premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through May 18. "The family is a tribe: an infighting tribe but intensely loyal."

In "Tribes," which has been a hit from London to New York, Raine spins an epic family drama around a deaf man born into a family famed for its verbal prowess. Billy (played by James Caverly) has been taught to read lips so he can fit into this loquacious brood, but of course, much of who he is and what he wants to communicate has always been lost in translation. He has never been taught sign language. In a family of verbal warriors, he has never found his voice.

"It is rare to encounter a play that covers so much ground for each character, spanning the worlds of deaf and hearing, interweaving the intellectual and the emotional, being so intense and so funny all at once," says director Jonathan Moscone of "Tribes." "It's so human, and I love it."

Family dysfunction

Billy has never questioned his place in the family hierarchy. His father is a poet and a critic who disparages everyone and everything. His mother is a novelist. His siblings are all artists drunk on their own muses. Only when he meets and falls for Sylvia (Oregon Shakespeare Festival vet Nell Geisslinger) a woman raised by deaf parents who has begun to lose her own hearing, does he realize that he is desperate to be heard amid the cacophony.

Raine ("Rabbit," "Tiger Country") confesses that much of the dysfunctional family dynamic in the play is steeped in her own upbringing as part of a literary family where tongues were as sharp as minds. Her father is poet Craig Raine, and her mother is an academic. She's the grandniece of Russian novelist Boris Pasternak and her brother Moses is also a playwright. Indeed, she is currently at work directing his Russian family drama "Donkey Heart," which also riffs on their childhood, in a sense.

"You might say we are both looking at the same family, it's just relocated onto a different stage," says the Oxford-educated writer during a break in rehearsals for "Donkey Heart" at London's Old Red Lion Theatre. "These are the voices in your head, the things that echo."

Raine also interviewed many deaf people to capture the experience of that community. She also learned some sign language and delved into the cultural complexities of the deaf world.

"I can't imagine losing my hearing," she says candidly. "I learned so much, for instance, no two people are the same degree deaf. The most depressed people were the ones who had been hearing and knew what they were losing."

She also drew on the insights of one of her relatives. who has dyslexia and never quite fit into hyper-verbal realm of the rest of the family.

"It was interesting that someone in a very literary family was not part of the tribe," she says. "I wanted to take that a little further and make it more extreme by making the person deaf."

Fitting in

Certainly all of us feel excluded from our families at one point or another, which is why "Tribes" resonates on so many levels.

"'Tribes' is such a beautifully written play and so rich in emotional and psychological detail that it has been an endless excavation for the cast and me," says Moscone, best known as artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, "and as tough as the work has been, it has been nothing but joyful for me to walk into a room and dig into Nina's language of ideas and feelings."

One of the most praised aspects of the play is how cleverly it gives the audience a sense of what it is like to miss some of the shades and nuances of conversation. Supertitles are projected throughout the play, especially to translate what is communicated through sign language. But Raines hopes to capture the elusive nature of meaning, even for those of us who are not hard of hearing.

"You want the audience to feel close to this family, even uncomfortably close," says Raine. "But at the same time, there may be points when you feel as if you can't catch everything, maybe you are looking at the back of the actor's head, maybe there are shadows that obscure your view."

In one of the play's key scenes, Billy brings his new girlfriend home to meet his fractious family. After a volatile dinner, she sits down to play the piano for them all. A woman on the verge of deafness, she plays the notes with a new intensity.

"She is playing the piano even though she can no longer entirely hear it but she can remember hearing it," says Raine. "Billy's family is listening to her play, and they can share that moment, while he himself is left out in the cold."

"Tribes" makes the audience listen hard from start to finish, leaving us with a heightened awareness of the symphony of sound.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

'TRIBES'
By Nina Raine, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Through: May 18
Where: Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
Tickets: $29-$99, 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org