Pioneer Press

Actress, 25, finds 'Becoming Dr. Ruth' means becoming a lot older

By Chris Hewitt
August 20, 2015

Here's what Miriam Schwartz has in common with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whom she plays in "Becoming Dr. Ruth": She's Jewish, short and female.

Here's what Schwartz does not have in common with her: She's one-third Westheimer's age, she's not a Holocaust survivor, she didn't have most of her foot blown off by a bomb and she is not one of the world's foremost sexperts.

"I was very surprised to get cast," Schwartz, 25, says of playing Westheimer, who is now 87 but is 69 in the play, "Becoming Dr. Ruth," which runs through Aug. 30.

Schwartz, who had appeared in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's "Jericho" and "Handle With Care," was invited to audition. When she was leaving her tryout and saw that the next auditioner was a woman who had played her mother-in-law only a month earlier, she figured she was unlikely to get the part.

"I expressed my apprehension, both before the audition and after I was cast," Schwartz says. "If the script jumped back and forth in her memories, I had thought it might make sense to be cast younger, but she's 69 for the entire play. But both Barbara (Brooks, the theater's producing artistic director) and Craig (Johnson, the play's director) did a really nice job of reassuring me that they had chosen me because of an energy, as opposed to whether I looked 69."

Other than school productions, it's the first time Schwartz has played a character anywhere near the age of the famous TV sex therapist, whose younger exploits as part of the children-rescuing Kindertransport during World War II and as an Israeli sniper are dealt with in the play.

But commenting on events in the life of the elderly Westheimer is only one of the play's challenges. There's also the fact that Schwartz is the only person on stage for "Becoming Dr. Ruth's" entire 90 minutes.

"It's a really different energy in the rehearsal room," says Schwartz, who has never done a solo show. "There's the director and the stage manager and me. I'm used to having actors around, to working on scenes and dialogue, which are usually the parts I love most about acting."

Given the old truism that acting is reacting, "Becoming Dr. Ruth" is tricky, since there's no one to react to.

"Beyond the fact that it's challenging to memorize this much text in a short amount of time, it's a different way to approach the show because how you break down the beats and the moments of the text are not dictated by reacting to other characters," Schwartz says. "In this case, she's packing up her apartment and her thought process is dictated by the objects she picks up and the sentimental value they have to her."

Schwartz -- who grew up in Seattle, moved here to participate in the Guthrie/University of Minnesota bachelor of fine arts training program in 2008, and never left -- says that, in lieu of other actors, she has been taking advantage of technology so distant family members can help her learn the pages and pages of lines.

Maybe the biggest challenge of "Becoming Dr. Ruth," though, is to capture a familiar character without resorting to mimicry.

"It's been about finding how I can do it in a way that is truthful to the body I'm in and the voice I have and the perspective I have, but also make her recognizable as the woman who had such a considerable influence on sex education," says Schwartz, who is 5 inches taller than the 4-foot-7 Westheimer.

The actress has been working with dialect coach Foster Johns, as well as Johnson, to capture the distinctive sound of Westheimer's voice, which bears traces of her knowledge of French, German and Hebrew. Meanwhile, they are also working to get at the heart of the woman who, even in her 60s, came off as much younger.

"There's this exuberance she has when she speaks," says Schwartz, who was not yet born during Westheimer's '80s heyday but has plenty of TV tapes to study. "She often talks about when she was sent to Switzerland on the Kindertransport and her grandmother repeated this mantra that she used often, which was to smile and be cheerful and trust God. Even when she recounts the horrific details of her childhood, she always puts a positive spin on it and she talks about this concept in the Jewish faith called 'tikkun olam,' which means 'repair the world'."

That concept is a key to understanding Westheimer, Schwartz thinks.

"She talks about having survived when millions of children didn't," says Schwartz. "I think that perspective colors all of her interactions and the way she thinks about all the events of her life. And, ultimately, it plays into what she finds important about educating people about sex."

Although Westheimer's candid sex talk was one of the things that gained her fame, Schwartz says the more circumspect "Becoming Dr. Ruth" won't offend audience members who are touchy about sex talk.

One degree of difficulty Schwartz has not had to deal with while playing Dr. Ruth is Dr. Ruth herself, who was involved in the initial New York performances of the play, which starred the also-significantly-younger Debra Jo Rupp ("That '70s Show").

"I read a little interview with (Dr. Ruth) when the original production was being done a couple of years ago and there was some anecdote about her speaking with Debra Jo Rupp and saying, 'You sit too much! Stand up! I walk around all the time. Let me see you walk like this!' " Schwartz says with a chuckle. "I think she was kind of bossy."

Schwartz will have to find her inner boss in "Becoming Dr. Ruth" but that may not be a problem. As she admits in her answers to our 10 questions, the lines between Ruth and Miriam are beginning to blur:

Q. What's your motto?

A. Always smile and be cheerful and trust in God. No, wait. That's Dr. Ruth's. I'm confused. I don't know that I have one.

Q. What would you do if you had a million dollars?

A. I'd travel all over. Probably Spain, Morocco, South America. I would quit my day job (site accountant at the Uptown Minneapolis YWCA).

Q. Where is your favorite place to be?

A. I love being on the West Coast, near the ocean. I love being in my family's home in Seattle, listening to music with my parents.

Q. Who would play you in a movie?

A. Maybe Ellen Page. She's young and probably more hip that I am but I think a movie version of me would be more hip than I am.

Q. What's the scariest thing you've ever done?

A. This (the show) is pretty close.

Q. What are you thinking when you're about to begin a performance?

A. It depends on who's in the audience. Before this one, I think I might be throwing up. Hopefully not? Usually, I'm pumped and ready to give the audience a fun show.

Q. When did you know you wanted to be a performer?

A. There wasn't really a deciding moment. I grew up with a lot of music and theater and a very supportive family. So, after I decided I couldn't be a princess, the next best thing was an actor. That was when I was probably 7 or 8. Then, when I graduated high school, there wasn't really any question about whether I would pursue it professionally.

Q. What was your first job?

A. I had the best high school job. I was one of the hosts of a PBS series from the same people who did "Bill Nye, the Science Guy." It's called "Biz Kids" and it's still running on PBS. Occasionally, friends will call and say, "I'm watching you on TV, explaining the difference between a debit card and a credit card." I spent a lot of weekends and evenings in my high school years, filming.

Q. What's the best thing about your job?

A. Working with other actors, working on texts. I love telling stories and I love the opportunity to collaborate in the ways that acting lets you do.

Q. Who do you admire most?

A. I admire my parents most, both as individuals and as examples of how to create a loving environment for their children and family.