When Phyllis Frelich was introduced to playwright Mark Madoff, it took him only twenty minutes to promise to write a play that would focus on the experience of the deaf in the hearing world. The result was Children of a Lesser God, which starred Ms. Frelich and John Rubenstein and won each of them a Tony Award, as well as the 1980 Tony for best play.
Born to deaf parents, who raised nine deaf children, Ms. Frelich had not thought of acting until she attended Gallaudet College (now University) and became involved in their theater department. Her on-campus performances earned her an invitation to join the National Theater of the Deaf, then based in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She met her husband, Richard Steinberg, while working there, and their romance later inspired the plot of Lesser God.
Ms. Frelich had a full Broadway and television career following her award-winning performance. She would star in two other Madoff-written plays, Hands of Its Enemy (1986) and Prymate (2004), as well as an all-deaf production of Big River (2003).
Known best on the small screen for her 31-episode run as Sister Sarah on the daytime drama Santa Barbara, she earned an Emmy nomination for her role as a deaf mother raising a hearing teenager, played by Mare Winningham, in Love is Never Silent (1986). She made guest appearances on a variety of shows including Barney Miller, Spenser: For Hire, Diagnosis Murder, and two episodes of ER. Her final television appearance was on CSI in 2011.
Phyllis Frelich, who was born on Leap Day 1944, died on April 10, 2014 at the age of 70. Her cause of death was progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a rare and incurable, degenerative neurological disease.
Sources: NY Times, Internet Broadway Database, Wikipedia, and IMDB.com
(Image of Phyllis Frelich and John Rubenstein at the 1980 Tony Awards is copyright Richard Drew/AP and coutesy of the NY Daily News)