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“Am I gay man who happens
to be deaf? Or a deaf man who
just happens to be gay?”

That is the dilemma Bryan McKenzie faces on the eve of his 40th birthday. At first it seems that everyone else has the answer. George, his well-meaning blue collar father, insists being deaf is more important. But Phillip, Bryan’s best friend, believes being gay is harder and that's why Bryan must be a gay, deaf man.

Nebraska. The 1960s. Bryan’s parents, worried he is falling behind in school, send him off to a school for the deaf. There he meets Phillip, a confirmed rebel who is already challenging authority by teaching himself sign language (ASL), an anathema to the conservative headmaster. Years later, estranged from his father, Bryan moves to New York to join Phillip. As Act I ends, both are openly gay (never lovers) and wildly excited by the boundless opportunities that lay before them.

As Act II begins, the men (now in their 30s) are on different trajectories: Phillip is a successful lawyer, wealthy and in a relationship. Bryan is an office assistant, unfocusedly pursuing an acting career.

Their approaches to dealing with challenges have evolved. Bryan is now more independent and resourceful: he begins a relationship and takes steps to mend the rift with his father. Phillip has become angry and testy – but it’s no longer in the rebellious way others once admired. His rage is caused by mounting panic: his hearing is deteriorating and he is about to lose his job.

At the play’s climax, their personal hearing issues become critical in resolving different problems: Phillip, whose relationship has broken down, is no longer able to effectively represent clients in court. Bryan, who has lost the position he was counting on to begin building a career, learns at his father’s retirement party that one source of their problems was that George never accepted his son couldn’t hear.

Bryan returns to New York determined to create his own niche in theater. Phillip is unable to overcome his internal prejudices about being deaf, has been forced into an administrative position. Finding his own rebellious streak, Bryan begins ASL classes: “It’s part of my culture, like Stonewall.” In the play's closing moments, he comes downstage as he was at the beginning:

So these two men still love me and they still drive me crazy. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Nothing’s changed. Only now I’m 40. Haven’t I learned anything at all?
Yes, I have: I am a deaf gay man.

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Copyright © 2005 Michael Conley.  All rights reserved.