Phyllis Frelich dies; deaf actress won the Tony Award for Children of a Lesser God

TEMPLE CITY, CA–Phyllis Frelich, whose Tony Award-winning performance in the 1980 Broadway play Children of a Lesser God increased public awareness and understanding of how deaf people lead their lives, died on April at her home here near Los Angeles. She was 70 years of age.

Phyllis Frelich
Phyllis Frelich

The play about the tumultuous romance and marriage of a deaf woman and a normal-hearing man established Frelich, who was born deaf to deaf parents, as perhaps the best-known deaf actress on the American stage. In it, she played Sarah Norman, a young student whose teacher falls in love with her while teaching her to speak.

The basic story was inspired by the actress’s own marriage to Robert Steinberg, and the two of them worked closely with the playwright, Mark Medoff, in writing Children of a Lesser God, which won the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play. When the play was turned into a movie in 1986, Marlee Matlin, who was making her film debut, played Sarah Norman. Matlin, who had lost her hearing at the age of 18 months, won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and has remained prominent in film, and television ever since.

Long before Deaf Culture issues had become widely known to the public, Children of a Lesser God shed light on the conflicting ideologies about speech and deafness. While the teacher is convinced that it is essential for the deaf to learn to speak, his student holds the view a deaf person can lead a fulfilling life without communicating vocally.

Marlee Matlin
Marlee Matlin
Phyllis Frelich with her co-star, John Rubinstein, in Children of a Lesser God.
Phyllis Frelich with her co-star, John Rubinstein, in Children of a Lesser God.

Before being discovered by the wider public, Frelich had acted with the National Theater of the Deaf. Her acclaimed performance in Children of a Lesser God opened the door to further roles. She appeared in two other plays by Medoff. In The Hands of Its Enemy, she played a playwright, and in Prymate, which ran on Broadway in 2004, she was anthropologist who teaches a gorilla to sign. She was also in a revival on Broadway of the musical Big River, in which the actors signed rather than sang.

Frelich also appeared in other media. She had a prominent role in “Love Is Never Silent,” a 1985 made-for-television movie in which she played the mother of a hearing daughter born to deaf parents. She had a recurring part in the television soap opera Santa Barbara and made guest appearances on numerous television series, including, most recently, a 2011 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Phyllis Annetta Frelich who was born in 1944, in Devils Lake, ND, was the oldest of nine deaf children born to deaf parents. Her father was a typesetter for the local newspaper and her mother was a seamstress. A graduate of the North Dakota School for the Deaf, she went on to college at Gallaudet, where she became deeply involved in theater.

After seeing her perform at Gallaudet, David Hays, a founder of the National Theater of the Deaf, asked her to join the company, based in Connecticut. It was there that she met Robert Steinberg, her teacher and then husband, who survives her after 45 years of marriage.