PITTSFIELD, MASS. — They meet at an art opening: a young man who doesn't know the group and a young woman trying to get away from it. They are talking casually about stilt-walkers, champagne and Che Guevara. He asks her a question, and she moves her hands, the letters imagining the bloom flowering and then wilting.
"Fingerspelling," she says. "Sign poem."
She has just shown him a new way to speak.
Joshua Castille as Billy and Eli Pauley as Sylvia will appear together in Nina Raine's "Tribes," opening Aug. 18 at Barrington Stage Company.
Like the characters they play, Castille is deaf, and Pauley is hard of hearing. Castille, who appeared as Ernst in Deaf West's Tony-nominated Broadway revival of "Spring Awakening," talked about "Tribes" with an interpreter at a rehearsal at St. Joseph's High School.
Billy has come home after college to his parents sniping at each other and his older brother and sister angry and in pain.
"He is beginning to realize he truly is alone," Castille said.
At university, he probably had a single room, and he would have had no deaf classmates. Now he watches his family talk to each other around him.
"Robin Williams said it's the worst feeling to be alone in a room full of people you care about," Castille said.
Billy can speak, he can lip read, he can order food in a restaurant, he said — but he can't sign, he can't connect with his family in their intense discussions, and he can't express his real thoughts.
"He's been rewarded all his life for not signing," said director Jenn Thompson.
He earned attention and praise for independence and adaptability.
Now, as anyone in their 20s does in some way, he is feeling the ways his family constrains him, Castille said. He has to fight for himself, and he has to fight for a culture.
Billy's journey feels familiar to him, as Billy stands up to the ways his family has left him out or tried to make him what they want him to be.
"I was always the poster child for my school for the deaf," he said. "I had a lot of support — I can speak, I can sign, my family signs with me."
Some of his friends got little or no help from their families, and it frustrated him.
"As a child, we can't advocate," he said. "Eight hours a day I would see friends struggle."
And some parents would make all the decisions for their children, even in high school.
Castille remembered getting ice cream with a friend. His mother distracted the friend's mother so the two boys could sample flavors, and his friend picked one with vanilla — and the mother took it away and got him chocolate instead, saying this is your favorite kind.
Billy's mother also knows she has made mistakes, though she denies it.
"She is vulnerable," Thompson said. "For mothers, for parents, seeing children in pain is hard, especially if you could have prevented it."
For Castille, finding a deaf identity has been similar to finding a gay identity. Gay children, like deaf children, are often born to parents who are not like them, he said. They have to prove themselves, and they don't see themselves reflected in the world.
"I'm so happy they picked a deaf person to play this role and a hard-of-hearing person to play Sylvia," he said. "It's rare, if not unique, in all the times this play has been done. Eli and I connect."
Billy and Sylvia are blunt with each other, when they talk to each other alone.
"It's very raw," Castille said.
Their friction and honesty move him.
"They truly call each other out in honest ways the family hasn't," he said.
Sylvia has deaf parents and has cared for them as a hearing child, until now. She knows the deaf community Billy has never met. She is terrified of becoming deaf, and he is terrified of losing her.
Castille feels their conflict is intensely and broadly relevant: "How do we coexist when my identity conflicts with your identity?"
He sees the country struggling with that question in many ways, as people from many parts of the world, many faiths and backgrounds and classes come together.
"All of this is about identity and communicating," he said, and about the assumptions people make.
Leah Katz-Hernandez, the Receptionist of the United States at the White House, the receptionist for the president, is deaf and does not speak. People often respond with "how is she going to answer the phone," Castille said. He sees an intelligent woman who speaks more than one language, who has audio and video technology, works with skill and has information people need.
As he explores, Billy is making for himself many things his family wants — confidence, work, skill, friendship — and he also has information people need. He understands what his family tries to hide, Castille said.
"There's a sign for listening," he said, a gesture usually made toward the ear, and he made it held up to his eyes.
"That sign I'm using," he said — "If we're listening with our eyes, I'm seeing you. If I'm not looking at you, if I'm not hearing you, I could be looking elsewhere, and you're not getting the whole of my attention — the center of my attention."
ON STAGE ...
What: 'Tribes' at Barrington Stage Company
Where: Main Stage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Mass.
When: Aug. 18 to Sept. 3
Free conversation with Broadway ASL interpreter Candace Broecker Penn; Karran Larson, Pittsfield Case Manager, Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; and ASL interpreter Christopher Tester on communication in deaf culture, 2 p.m. Aug. 21, ASL interpreted