Mark Medoff, whose acclaimed play “Children of a Lesser God,” featuring a deaf central character, won the Tony Award for best play in 1980 and was turned into a 1986 movie that won an Oscar for its female lead, Marlee Matlin, died Tuesday in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He was 79.
His daughter Jessica posted news of his death on Facebook. The Las Cruces Sun News said he had cancer.
Medoff, who taught at New Mexico State University for more than half a century, wrote more than 30 plays.
He was drawing notice well before “Children of a Lesser God,” especially with “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?,” in which a threatening intruder disrupts life in a sleepy diner. The play was an early production of the influential Circle Repertory Theater in Manhattan and was Medoff’s first play to be staged in New York City.
“‘Red Ryder’ has vitality and authenticity,” Mel Gussow said in his review in The New York Times in 1973, “and Medoff’s writing is crystalline-sharp. The Circle has discovered a play and a playwright.”
The next year his comedy “Wager” was produced at the Eastside Playhouse in Manhattan. “Mr. Medoff plays with a plethora of words,” Clive Barnes wrote in a rave review in The Times, “and plays to win.”
But “Children of a Lesser God” brought him a new level of prominence. The play, first staged at New Mexico State and then, in 1979, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, is about a strong-willed young woman, Sarah, who is deaf and her evolving relationship with James, a speech teacher at a state school for the deaf who struggles to understand her world and perspective.
If “The Miracle Worker,” William Gibson’s play about Helen Keller and her teacher, had hinted at similar themes in 1959, Medoff explored them in sometimes funny, sometimes wrenching detail, and he did it with a strong female character who, on Broadway, was played by a deaf actress, Phyllis Frelich. She and her husband, Robert Steinberg, had advised Medoff as he worked on the play.
The play had come about when Frelich told Medoff that there were no substantive roles for deaf actresses, and he vowed to write one.
Frelich, who died in 2014, won the best-actress Tony, and her co-star, John Rubinstein, won for best actor. “Children of a Lesser God” ran for more than two years.
The film version brought Medoff and Hesper Anderson an Oscar nomination for their screenplay. Matlin won the best actress Oscar for her performance as Sarah.
“He insisted and fought the studio that the role be played by a deaf actor,” Matlin, who lost her hearing at 18 months old, said on Twitter. “I would not be here as an Oscar winner if it weren’t for him.”