Monday, 6 May 2019


My obituary of the writer and teacher Mark Medoff is online at the Guardian now; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. It was a fascinating piece to write, not least because my friend John Basinger was in the cast of Children Of A Lesser God, because of his long association with the National Theatre For the Deaf, and as I wrote, he met Medoff during the filming, but more importantly knew Phyllis Frelich (pictured with Medoff right) and Robert Steinberg (her husband, whose primary trade was as a lighting designer, not an actor) very well indeed. Much of John's role, as William Hurt's friend and confidant on the school's staff, was lost in the editing, as the film made the love story between Hurt and Marlee Matlin, and their direct contact in scenes together, the focus of the film. And with apologies to John, Marlee certainly made that worthwhile.

Medoff's career is interesting particularly for his 50 years at New Mexico State, during which time he put the university and the regional theatre company he founded on the national map. His plays tended to be workshopped and performed at festivals and in college programmes, and the more I looked at his work the more convinced I became that Children was almost a one-off, a real perfect storm of a time when issues like deafness or mercy-killing were in the forefront of theatre, and the presence of Frelich's immense skill as an actress, and Marlee Matlin's striking cinematic presence. Frelich worked with Medoff many times, but it was hard to convey just how badly their last collaboration, Prymate, was received.

The Wager seemed to me like a younger, less intense version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I've always thought Red Ryder was kind of a cross between Sam Shepherd and Bus Stop--the more bizarrely it is played the better it works. I also noticed how certain themes, beyond deafness, repeated in his work: oddly enough his later film Walking With Herb, in which an aging widower is given a golfing talent, reflected his earlier play Crunch Time (written with Phil Treon) in which a similar Mephistopholean deal is offered a girl playing high-school basketball. This is an old trope in sports, going back at least to Damn Yankees (and of course in a non-sporting sense Faust) but Walking With Herb also recalled the syrupy Mitch Albom bestseller Tuesdays With Morrie.

Perhaps it was the freedom acadame gave him to explore riffs on themes, to encourage younger talent, to do the kinds of things he wanted to do. But if I am right, and Children was indeed a sort of one-off, it was a major one. And after writing his obituary, I really do want to see Refuge.

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