By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Crittic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Tovah Feldshuh had described herself as a “transformational” actor. Among her previous outings in one-woman shows were Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (“Golda’s Balcony“) and hotel magnate Leona Helmsley in a play (‘The Queen of Mean“) and a cabaret show (“Tovah is Leona!“). She also played Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opposite another actress ‘s portrayal of Sandra Day O’Connor in a two-hander (“Sisters in Law“).
She has focused much of her stage career on playing strong-willed, powerful Jewish women in her own inimitable fashion. In each of these previous productions, Feldshuh created the role.
With Mark St. Germain’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” Feldshuh has assumed the role of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the unlikely radio and cable television sex therapist star of the 1980s and 1990s. But it is a role first performed by another actress nearly a decade ago and which was later produced Off-Broadway. Unlike the others, it is not a role which she originated.
Feldshuh first engaged the character of Ruth K. Westheimer this past summer in a very limited run on Long Island’s Sag Harbor as part of a Bay Street Theatre production. She then played the role in a streaming on-demand production of the North Coast Rep, directed by David Ellenstein. But, due to concerns of transmission of COVID, Feldshuh was filmed by Aaron Rumley without an audience.
Feldshuh has returned to the role at the invitation of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust playing in the Edmond Safra Hall to a live audience with a number of preview performances and an opening night on December 16. The remaining shows run through January 2.
This new production boasts fresh dialog in the opening and closing scenes with the encouragement of the playwright and director Scott Schwartz. Bay Street Theatre Festival, with whom Schwartz serves as artistic director, is also listed as a producer.
Feldshuh has generated her own thoughts on the character, learning texts in German, the sex therapist’s lingua franca, and soaking up as much background as she could. But most importantly, ., this show allows Feldshuh the opportunity to deliver her performance before a live audience, an experience under which she thrives as an actor.
Feldshuh’s portrayal of “Dr. Ruth” is remarkable. She takes the audience through the emotional ride of Westheimer’s life, which includes surviving the Holocaust as a child on the Kindertransport to neutral Switzerland, becoming a sniper and Haganah freedom fighter in Palestine under the British Mandate after the war, immigrating to America, marrying three times, having two children as well as becoming a beloved radio and TV personality.
Through the prism of Feldshuh’s exquisite performance we experience Westheimer’s lifelong journey and her deep sense of connection and dedication to helping others. Westheimer’s mannerisms are perfectly captured with the adroit and innate sensibility Feldshuh brings to this role.
St. Germain’s one-act show allows Feldshuh the ease to tell Westheimer’s story in a non-linear fashion, as a good friend might confide with another. The set by Andrew Diaz is based on Westheimer’s actual apartment with a view of the Hudson and the George Washington Bridge behind her showing far off images of traffic crossing it (video design by Brian C. Staton).
Once again, it is Feldshuh’s immersion in the role that elevates this performance. She giggles like a school girl when she discovers something that amuses her. Her on-stage persona is informed by the well-known celebrity, but it is not mere mimicry.
As an elderly woman, “Dr. Ruth” counseled much younger couples on questions dealing with sexual matters, which were serious in nature. It was that incongruity – and how she responded, in a frank and direct manner – which delighted audiences and often led to levity. It might have been easy to make Westheimer into a caricature of herself, but Feldshuh does not go down that rabbit hole. Instead, she brings her own interpretation to reveal the humanity of Ruth K. Westheimer, thus serving the playwright and the director in finally resolving an authentic on-stage representation with whom audience members can identify, connect and cherish.
Directed by Scott Schwartz, Tovah Feldshuh stars in “Becoming Dr. Ruth” by playwright Mark St. Germain. Performances in the Edmond Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Meemorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Place in New York City, run now through January 2 with tickets available every day except New Year’s Eve. For tickets, click here or call 888-901-7932 to order by phone.