Phyllis Frelich, a Tony Award-winning deaf actress who starred in the Broadway version of Children of a Lesser God, has died.
She was 70.
Frelich, died on Thursday at their home in Temple City, California, her husband, Robert Steinberg, said.
She suffered from a rare degenerative neurological disease called progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, for which there are no treatments, he said.
“She was extraordinary, the finest sign language actress there ever was,” he said. “We were married for 46 years. I would have been happy with 46 more.”
A native of Devils Lake, Frelich graduated from the North Dakota School for the Deaf and Gallaudet College – now Gallaudet University – in Washington. She was the oldest of nine deaf children born to deaf parents.
Frelich became interested in acting while at Gallaudet. She joined the National Theatre of the Deaf where she met Steinberg, who worked as a scenic and lighting designer on several plays by Mark Medoff.
The couple inspired Medoff to create Children of a Lesser God, which follows the relationship between a deaf woman and a teacher at a school for the deaf. The production was first staged in New Mexico and then in Los Angeles. Frelich won a Tony in 1980 for her Broadway portrayal of Sarah Norman, the deaf woman at the heart of the play.
“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.”
Frelich also appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame miniseries Love is Never Silent and on TV shows as CSI, ER and Gimme a Break!
Frelich received North Dakota’s highest honour, the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, in 1981.