Remembering Phyllis Frelich at the Mark Taper Forum memorial service
Phyllis Frelich, who earned a Tony Award for her portrayal of Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God, has remained a landmark figure, especially within the deaf theatre community. On Monday, October 20, the Deaf West Theatre honored this legendary woman by hosting a memorial service at the Mark Taper Forum, the location where Children of a Lesser God was originally developed and had its world premiere.
The memorial featured numerous speakers from the original play and the deaf theatre community. These included playwright Mark Medoff, Frelich’s co-star, John Rubinstein, the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, Ed Waterstreet, and a key figure in the creation of the National Theatre of the Deaf, Bernard Bragg.
Frelich passed in April from progressive supranuclear palsy at the age of 70. She was the oldest of nine deaf children born to deaf parents. While at Gallaudet University in Washington, Frelich studied library science but remained active in theatre. She later met her future husband, Robert Steinberg, at the National Theatre of the Deaf where he worked as a scenic and lighting designer. This relationship, between a deaf woman and a hearing man, inspired Medoff to write the Tony Award-winning play, Children of a Lesser God.
“I was the first deaf person he had known," Frelich told The Associated Press in 1988. "I told him there were no roles for deaf actresses. He said, 'OK, I'll write a play for you.' He did. He went home and wrote Children of a Lesser God. He wanted to write a good play. He was interested in me as an actress and he wasn't trying to write a message play."
“She was so animated and vivid, she made me immediately want to be able to converse with her,” Medoff said. “I was swept away. Within 20 minutes I told her I was going to write her a play.”
Children of a Lesser God, which centers on the relationship between a speech teacher and his deaf student, was originally directed by the Taper’s former artistic director, Gordon Davidson. When it made its Broadway debut, the Taper earned three Tony’s — for Frelich, her costar John Rubinstein and the play. The play was also later made into an Oscar-winning film.
In addition to Children of a Lesser God, Frelich went on to appear and star in numerous other roles on stage and television including _In the Hands of its Enem_y, also written by Medoff.
But if anyone can best attest to Frelich’s talent and impact, it’s the man who also inspired the creation of Children of a Lesser God.
“She was extraordinary, the finest sign language actress there ever was," Steinberg said. "We were married for 46 years. I would have been happy with 46 more."