Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The play is set in 1997 and takes place entirely in Ruth's Washington Heights, New York, apartment where she is packing up to move across town. It's been two months since her husband Fred has passed away and throughout the course of the 90-minute play, Westheimer talks directly to the audience and receives phone calls from her son and daughter who question her decision to move so soon after the death of her beloved husband. Westheimer also recounts the stories of her past and lets us see how the young Jewish woman grew up to be the famous sex therapist, Dr. Ruth.
Westheimer was born in 1928 Germany as Karola Ruth Siegel. With the rise of Nazism, Jewish families were scrambling to get their children out of the country, and Karola was quickly moved to Switzerland at age ten after her father had been moved to a work camp. Westheimer tells us the heartbreaking story of how both of her parents were assumedly killed in the concentration camps, since she never heard what happened to them once she moved to Switzerland, but also the fascinating details of how she was trained as a sniper for the underground army in Palestine and was wounded by shrapnel and unable to walk for months. Married three times, moving to America with husband number two afforded her new opportunities, including the opportunity to get her doctorate degree. A job doing survey work in Harlem for Planned Parenthood is what set her on track to do sexual therapy work.
St. Germain worked with Westheimer to craft the play, which premiered in 2012 and ran Off-Broadway in 2013, and his dialogue is warm and witty, just like Westheimer. He uses a fairly chronological order in the piece, which works beautifully to portray her fascinating past and to depict the steps she took to get her doctorate and what led to her becoming well-known. Fortunately, he never tries to sugarcoat the struggles she went through and he smartly centers the focus of the play on two recurring themes that are universal: the drive to continually survive and always striving to fulfill your dreams. However, I have a few quibbles with the play and how it uses phone calls that interrupt the forward thrust of the action. While these calls do add some variety to the piece, they almost always arrive right when Ruth is speaking about the Holocaust or another serious topic, which distracts, switches the focus, and stalls the momentum. Fortunately, these calls are less intrusive in the last thirty minutes of the play and the end makes up for the distractions with an incredibly moving and reflective moment where Westheimer talks about how the Holocaust is always present for her. St. Germain's last sentence is a whopper that you'll remember for days after seeing the play.
Debra K. Stevens has appeared in dozens of plays in town and, while she looks much younger than the age of 69 that Ruth is at the time of the play, she is delivering a moving, funny, touching and genuine portrayal of this famous woman. Stevens recreates the famous accent perfectly (her work with dialect coach Diane Senffner pays off beautifully) and she perfectly delivers Westheimer's well-known girlish giggle, body language, and vocal inflections. Her warm interaction and connection with the audience and the way she evokes Westheimer's non-threatening delivery pulls the audience into the story of this amazing woman. Stevens' comic timing, facial reactions, and dramatic delivery work well to evoke the deep sense of passion and larger-than-life personality that made Ruth famous.
Katie McFadzen's direction is clear and direct, with staging that connects Stevens intimately with the audience while also ensuring the many comical and dramatic moments resonate in a realistic way. While the accent, delivery and movement that Stevens uses are very close to Westheimer's, her performance never crosses into caricature, which could be easy to do with less talented people at the helm. Douglas Clarke's set beautifully depicts an apartment in the shambles of being packed up, with the use of archival photos and audio clips to help connect the audience with the people and places in the memories Westheimer tells of her past.
With a wonderful performance from Debra K. Stevens, Becoming Dr. Ruth at Phoenix Theatre Company is a funny, heartbreaking, and emotionally rich theatrical experiencea beautiful depiction of the amazing journey Karola Ruth Siegel took to become Dr. Ruth.
Becoming Dr. Ruth runs through June 27, 2021, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Director: Katie McFadzen
* Courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the US