Phyllis Frelich, Deaf Star of Children of a Lesser God, Dies

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11 Apr 2014

Phyllis Frelich, the deaf actress who won a Tony Award for her performance as the female lead in the play Children of a Lesser God and who co-founded the National Theatre of the Deaf, died April 10. She was 70.

Ms. Frelich played Sarah Norman, a feisty young deaf woman who enters into a fraught romance with her therapist, in Mark Medoff's earnest drama, which ran for more than two years on Broadway beginning in March 1980. She remained with the production during its entire run at the Longacre Theatre.

If the part fit Ms. Frelich like a glove, it was no accident. Medoff wrote the role specifically for Ms. Frelich after having met her. He drew directly on her life for material, meeting her hearing husband, Robert Steinberg, and examining the difficulties and challenges inherent in their union.

Speaking of the part she played, the actress told the Times, "I'm proud like Sarah, but I don't think I'm stubborn or as angry as she is."

The production won Tonys for Best Play, for Ms. Frelich and for her co-star John Rubenstein. Ms. Frelich was also nominated for a Drama Desk Award.



"Using no words at all," wrote Walter Kerr in the New York Times, "Ms. Frelich...creates a character of challenging complexity: severely private, sharply outspoken, wry, sensually responsive, firmly determined to lead a life that is specifically hers."

Mr. Medoff would remember Ms. Frelich two decades later, casting her in a role in his ill-fated Broadway play Prymate. In 2003 she played Sally Phelps and Miss Watson as a member of the ensemble of an acclaimed Deaf West production of the musical Big River, which used sign language.

As an actress, Mr. Frelich took her deafness in stride. "It was like having brown hair," she told the Times. "I never questioned it."

Her television credits included "ER," "Barney Miller," "Hunter," "Diagnosis: Murder" and "CSI." She was a regular on the 1988 series "Santa Barbara."

She was born Feb. 29, 1944, in Devils Lake, ND, the oldest of nine children. Her parents were both deaf. She attended the North Dakota School for the Deaf and graduated in 1962. She then attended Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C., a college for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, participating in theatre there.

She and Steinberg had two children, both hearing.