When we heard the painful news that Phyllis Frelich was struck down by a rare and deadly illness, a degenerative brain disease called PSP (progressive supranuclear palsy), those of us who knew her cried, “It is not possible!” Phyllis is too strong, too courageous, too determined to let this happen. Phyllis wouldn’t allow it.
I know from experience: I directed her twice, in two premieres, The Hands of Its Enemy at the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood, and her triumph in Children of a Lesser God, first at the Mark Taper Forum, and then on Broadway, where it earned Tony Awards for Phyllis, her co-star John Rubinstein and for the brilliant playwright, Mark Medoff.
Children was full of discoveries and adventures. It introduced new ideas about acting-as-signing and signing as a new definition of acting. It invented new ways to play a scene as silent language in motion, and presented new challenges of playing with voicing partners, seeing what deaf actors could communicate to both hearing and deaf performers with the full clarity of human emotion. It pushed boundaries and honed new methods of communication through facial expressions and physical imperatives.
I’d like to share with you the words and emotion of an extraordinary actor as he too struggles with her loss. After her death, John Rubinstein wrote to friends about the uniqueness of his journey with Phyllis, and the hard work of inventing a truthful language alongside her:
“She and I did our dance on a tightrope together for over two years in Children of a Lesser God. Over those hundreds of performances, she brought the A-game onstage every single time: that flashing energy, the ferocious strength and the open-hearted vulnerability in her vibrant eyes, the perfect timing and boundless sense of humor, the willingness to go the distance and follow the rush of the current anew every day.
“I can’t imagine where she found the patience to wait for me to try to catch up with the sign language; but she waited, and taught me, and showed me the ropes, and encouraged me to forge ahead, until finally we could line up at the top of that mountain every night and ski down it together.”
Phyllis Frelich gave everything her talent would allow, and then some. She inspired her collaborators, including her own husband, an actor and set designer. She made me open myself to the journey of this very moving play. She was determined to embrace all that and bring it loud and clear to audiences night after night.
We were blessed.
Gordon Davidson is the founding artistic director of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.