LAKEVIEW — As the only deaf person in his high school, Brendan Connelly said he felt like he "was in jail."
"I felt a lot of anger inside, emotionally," Connelly said. "I felt frustrated. Everyone else could hear, and most people didn't make an effort to approach me."
Acting has helped the Notre Dame College Prep graduate and Norwood Park native who's now starring as Romeo in a new play "R & J: The Vineyard" at the Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway. The play, an adaption of "Romeo and Juliet" set in 1890s Martha's Vineyard — which at the time had a large deaf population — will be performed weekends starting Saturday.
"On stage, I can be whatever I want to be," Connelly, now 26, said through an interpreter. "I don't have to be myself. It helps me let out some of my feelings."
The play, a joint venture between Oracle and Red Theater Chicago, features three deaf actors and several speaking actors. The script employs speaking parts, with the deaf actors speaking and also using sign language as a video board in the background providing captions for the audience.
Red Theater founder Aaron Sawyer said Connelly is the perfect fit for the lead role.
"The moment Red Theater saw Brendan start his audition, the entire room leaned forward," said Sawyer, the play's main director. "Brendan romanced us as Romeo; he has a wonderful intensity behind his eyes, and his hands carve out Shakespeare's imagery with lyrical ease using American Sign Language.
"His chemistry and generosity with his fellow actors is an important part of this show's success as he helps us to explore very sensitive Deaf Culture situations with confidence and authenticity," Sawyer said.
Connelly's parents first noticed their son had hearing issues when he was one. They would call his name and he wouldn't answer, instead continuing to play with his toys. When he was two, Connelly started wearing hearing aids. At age 10, he had surgery to insert a cochlear implant on the right side of his head. He uses a hearing aid on his left ear.
Connelly has been acting since junior high but really got into the craft in high school; Connelly was the first deaf student to attend high school at Notre Dame and graduated from all-boys Catholic school in 2008. He's also taken classes at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston and The Second City in Old Town.
"Growing up, I was a pretty shy person," Connelly said. "I started becoming more comfortable and have had many great experiences because of acting."
Tickets to "R+J: The Vineyard" are free and can be found at redtheater.org/tickets
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