Phyllis Frelich, Tony-Winning Actress and Deaf Activist, Dies at 70
By BRUCE WEBER
APRIL 14, 2014
Phyllis Frelich, the actress who made a groundbreaking and Tony-winning Broadway star turn in 1980 in “Children of a Lesser God,” Mark Medoff’s play — written with her and her husband’s help — about the courtship and marriage of a deaf woman and a man who can hear, died on Thursday at her home in Temple City, Calif., near Los Angeles. She was 70.
Robert Steinberg, her husband, said the cause was progressive supranuclear palsy, known as PSP, a rare brain disorder whose cause is largely a mystery and for which there is no known effective treatment.
Mr. Medoff had already written a number of plays, including the 1973 Off Broadway hit “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?,” when he met Ms. Frelich, who was deaf, in 1978, introduced by her husband, a scenic designer. A member of the National Theater of the Deaf, she told him that there were no substantive roles for deaf actresses. Captivated by the possibilities, he promised to write one. Sign language, he thought, was inherently theatrical, and the struggles of the deaf to make themselves understood would be a poignant example of the complexities of all human communication.
“She was so animated and vivid, she made me immediately want to be able to converse with her,” Mr. Medoff said in an interview on Monday. “I was swept away. Within 20 minutes I told her I was going to write her a play.”
“Children of a Lesser God,” the story of a speech teacher who falls for a young deaf woman who resists his lessons, as well as the idea that she must speak in order to participate in the world, was deeply informed by the relationship between Ms. Frelich and Mr. Steinberg. Mr. Medoff had observed it at close hand: the couple moved to Las Cruces, N.M., where Mr. Medoff was chairman of the drama department at New Mexico State University, and lived there for six months.
“I’ve always said the two of them and I were of equal importance in creating that play,” Mr. Medoff said.
“Children of a Lesser God” won the 1980 Tony Award for best play, Ms. Frelich won the Tony for best actress in a play, and her co-star, John Rubinstein, won for best actor. The play ran for two years, during which Mr. Steinberg, who was Mr. Rubinstein’s understudy, made his own Broadway debut.
Phyllis Annetta Frelich was a leap year baby, born on Feb. 29, 1944, in Devils Lake, N.D. Her father, Phillip, a typesetter for the local newspaper, and her mother, Esther, a seamstress, were both deaf. Phyllis was the oldest of nine deaf children.
She attended the North Dakota School for the Deaf in Devils Lake and Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University) in Washington, where her degree was in library science but her main interest was theater. David Hays, a founder of the National Theater of the Deaf in 1967, had seen her perform at Gallaudet and asked her to join the company, which was then based at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. It was there that she met Mr. Steinberg. They married in 1968.
In addition to him, Ms. Frelich is survived by her siblings: four sisters, Shirley Egbert, Peggy Camp, Priscilla O’Donnell and Pamela Campbell, and four brothers, Dennis, Merrill, Timothy and Daryl. She is also survived by two sons, Reuben and Joshua, and a grandson.
In 1986 “Children of a Lesser God” was made into a film, starring William Hurt and Marlee Matlin. Ms. Matlin won an Oscar for her performance in the role played onstage by Ms. Frelich.
Mr. Medoff wrote other plays for Ms. Frelich, including “The Hands of Its Enemy,” in which she played a high-strung playwright, and “Prymate,” which appeared on Broadway in 2004, in which her character, an anthropologist, befriends a gorilla she has taught to sign.
She also appeared on Broadway in 2003 in a revival of the 1985 musical “Big River,” in which all the actors used sign language.
Ms. Frelich starred with Mare Winningham and Ed Waterstreet in the 1985 television movie “Love Is Never Silent,” the story of deaf parents of a daughter who can hear, and she had a recurring role in the television soap opera “Santa Barbara.” She made guest appearances on numerous television series, including “Barney Miller,” “L.A. Law” and “ER.” Her most recent appearance was on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” in 2011.
“By then her illness was affecting her,” Mr. Steinberg said. He added that he hoped her death would bring attention to the disease, which also afflicted the actor Dudley Moore, and to CurePSP, an organization devoted to solving its mysteries.
“She was tough and fierce and strong-willed and beautiful,” Gordon Davidson, who directed “Children of a Lesser God” on Broadway, said in an interview on Monday. “We were talking two different languages, and I was amazed at the need to communicate, and the energy of communicating came out in the form of sign language. It was overwhelming for everybody, and it was a truly glorious and humbling experience.”
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