Nazis, snipers, and sex talks in Becoming Dr. Ruth
By Ed Huyck
Friday, August 21, 2015
You may think you know Dr. Ruth Westheimer, but the therapist’s story is a lot more than making David Letterman blush on late-night TV. The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company opens its new season with Becoming Dr. Ruth, a one-woman show about the intriguing figure. Miriam Schwartz plays the title role, while Craig Johnson directs.
It’s been a quick turnaround for Johnson. “I was contacted just seven weeks before the opening, and asked if I had someone in mind. There were several great actors who were available that did come in. Miriam was someone I always wanted to work with,” he says.
After casting, the duo had a single read through, then Johnson was off to Bemidji to direct the decidedly different Spamalot. Meanwhile, Schwartz spent the time memorizing lines and working on her interpretation of Dr. Ruth.
“My knowledge of Dr. Ruth was limited. I knew who she was. I knew the sort of cultural influence she had, but I didn’t know many of the details about her childhood and young adult years,” Schwartz says.
Mark St. Germain’s script certainly helps, as it follows the woman from her early years in pre-World War II Germany through her entire life. Westheimer’s story is certainly a lot more than offering sex advice to uptight Americans. She survived Kristallnacht, watched her father taken off to a “work” camp, and then fled Germany on a Kindertransport. Later, after emigrating to Israel, she became a sniper in the country's early days.
“She goes through these really specific, monumental events of her life [in the play]. There are the little details, and what she felt in those moments. What was it like to see her father taken to a work camp, and to watch him taken to the truck. These things that color her life,” Schwartz says.
“Most of the research was walking clips. She has her own YouTube channel. I watched her on David Letterman or talking to Jerry Seinfield. That helped me see how she is with these different celebrities and comedians. I was able to pick up on her vocal rhythms. It is so interesting, the way she chooses to punctuate sentences,” Schwartz says.
Once Johnson returned from his musical excursion with the Knights Who Say Ni, the work of putting the show together could begin. “We started to beat out the script the same way you would with scene work, but it is far more difficult when it is a monologue,” Schwartz says.
“Many years ago I did a one-person show at the Fringe, so I know the terror that goes into this,” Johnson says. “How do I both lead the audience and play with what they are giving me? Where are the moments of comedy, and how does this moment connect to this one?”
“A lot of what I love about acting is working with other actors,” Schwartz continues. “I had to reset my mind to what rehearsals look like and what the energy was going to be like. I really felt like I had someone I could trust in this process. It didn’t feel so daunting. We laughed a lot in rehearsal.”
The show offers the audience a chance “to sit with someone who is a fascinating person. It is surprising to me how funny the show is, and how many touching moments there are," Johnson says. "She is such a positive life force. She was talking about sex education at a time when it shocked and we were embarrassed about it. She is just such a vivid character that it is an exciting thing to be able to broaden that."