By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Tovah Feldshuh has made a career of originating memorable roles of strong female characters on both the small and large screens, but the milieu where she has been especially captivating and probably feels most at home has been on the stage. It’s why her roles as Golda Meir (Golda’s Balcony), Leona Helmsley (The Queen of Mean) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Sisters in Law) have all resonated so well.
Feldshuh’s latest role as Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer in the North Coast Rep’s Becoming Dr. Ruth carries on the tradition of connecting her skills as an actor to breathe life into another famous Jewish woman, but, unlike the others, this role was not hers first. In fact, the work written by playwright Mark St. Germain premiered at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires nine years ago.
Originating a role such as this requires a great deal of thought and enterprise. Like a sculptor who removes all but the necessary pieces of stone to reveal the subject or a potter who manually fashions pieces from clay, every good actor originating a role has the freedom to personalize it in any way they see fit before it is finalized. Once it is frozen, their mark is indelibly stained on the role.
If Feldshuh was intimidated by having to step into a role she had not created, there is no indication of it in the way she plunges into Becoming Dr. Ruth, which was directed by North Coast Rep’s artistic director David Ellenstein and filmed on their stage by Aaron Rumley and a small crew of camera operators.
While the other roles she assumed were well-known public figures, Ruth Westheimer was different. She is more rightly considered a TV celebrity, who, since 1980, came into homes via her own popular radio and cable talk shows and was a frequent guest on the late night and daytime talk show circuit.
Feldshuh’s jovial take on “Dr. Ruth,” is spot on and she assumes the character as easily as if donning an overcoat. She speaks in the same familiar pattern and with the heavily pronounced German accent that marked Westheimer’s on-air presence. Oftentimes, there is a sense of youthful wonderment and glee espoused by her persona as the popular sexual therapist Ph.D. She giggles to herself as if she has stumbled onto a wonderful joke and, typically, she let’s the audience in on it, especially if it has something to do with genitalia of either sex.
But Westheimer’s story is far from one marked by joy. A Holocaust survivor due to her being selected to be a part of the Kindertransport, Westheimer tells the audience of how she had one personalized wash cloth and one doll that she took with her in her suitcase. Compassionate even as a young girl, she found another desperate girl who needed the stuffed animal more than her and she gave it away, leaving her just the wash cloth as a momento of her earlier life.
Westheimer might have become depressed, but she held on despite the world collapsing into war. She lost contact with her family and lived the war out in relative safety in neutral Switzerland. She and her fellow transportees were expected to take on menial service chores for the Swiss. It made them cling to each other as “brothers and sisters.”
She met the first of her loves there and after the war journeyed to Palestine to become one of the freedom fighters for Israel’s early independence. Feldshuh relates how Westheimer felt she was a second class citizen again, because the German Jews were looked down upon by the Polish Jews for not having left Germany before the Nazis were able to achieve power over them.
St. Germain’s script has Feldshuh proudly displaying a shooting target with five bullseyes she got while accompanying her grandson to a fairway. He couldn’t believe she hit the target, much less the bullseye. This allows her to briefly speak about her years as a teenage sharpshooter and sniper. It is a marked contrast to the jovial grandmother who freely gave out sex advice to teens over the radio and on TV. “You don’t believe me either. No. No. No. I can tell,” she points playfully to the audience. “You’d better hope I don’t have to prove it.”
Westheimer endured hardship after hardship in Palestine and early Israel, but eventually left for Paris to be trained in her chosen field. She leaves her second husband before finally achieving marital success with Fred Westheimer. She raises her family and by happenstance becomes a much beloved celebrity over radio (WYNY) and later cable TV.
Feldshuh brings gravitas to the stage figure when discussing the outcome of the war and how Westheimer attempted to move on from the horrors of the Holocaust. Mark St. Germain is to be congratulated for putting more than a character sketch on the pages of the Becoming Dr. Ruth manuscript. He was rebuffed initially by the real Dr. Ruth when he first proposed the play, but he ingeniously kept coming back until she agreed to it.
This is a play that uplifts the spirit and comments on both the inspirational side of human nature and the ugly, unseemly anti-Semitic side that saw its greatest grasp on mankind during the period leading up to and during World War II. Feldshuh is wonderful in the role and triumphs in her portrayal. This is an endearing show that should be high on everyone’s list for viewing during its short virtual run.
Becoming Dr. Ruth by Mark St. Germain runs now through July 11 over the North Coast Rep’s streaming platform. To get tickets or for more information click here.
Directed by David Ellenstein, the artistic director of North Coast Rep, the cinematography, editing, projections and sound design are by Aaron Rumley and his crew, who shot the entire work on their own stage under COVID-restrictions for the safety measures. Costume design was by Eliza Benzoni and wig design was by Peter Herman. Props were by Philip Korth.