Star Tribune

Actress embodies famed sex therapist in 'Becoming Dr. Ruth'

A one-woman show recounts tales from the colorful life of America's favorite sex therapist. 

By Kristin Tillotson
August 14, 2015

Being America’s most famous sex therapist might seem a substantial enough accomplishment for any résumé. But before she earned those laurels, Dr. Ruth ­Westheimer was a sharpshooter with the Israeli army.

“That certainly didn’t fit with my perception of who she was,” said Miriam Schwartz, who portrays Westheimer in “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” a solo show being staged by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company starting Thursday. “She said she was fast, had good aim and was small so there was less of her to shoot back at.”

Westheimer’s early life was traumatic. As an only child growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, she was shipped off to Switzerland before World War II and never saw her parents again or found out what happened to them, although it is presumed they died in concentration camps.

After the war, she went to live on a kibbutz in Israel, studied to be a teacher and trained as a soldier.

“One of my favorite lines in the play is her saying, ‘I taught children arts and crafts by day and was taught how to throw hand grenades at night,’ ” Schwartz said.

The show, written by Mark St. Germain and directed by Craig Johnson, begins with Dr. Ruth in her New York City apartment, going through boxes while preparing to move, reminiscing about particular objects, photographs and journal entries.

“A music box she received from her second husband in Paris leads her to talk about the importance of music in her life,” Schwartz said. “but she advises against playing music during sex, saying, ‘You should concentrate on each other.’ ”

Westheimer also has had a lifelong fascination with dollhouses.

“When she lost touch with her family, she found some peace in arranging little figurines in dollhouses as pristine family pictures,” Schwartz said.

At 25, actress plays age 69

Westheimer met her first husband in Israel, and they moved to Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne. They divorced, and she met her second husband in Paris, then moved with him to the United States, where she had her first child.

She used restitution money she received from the German government to enroll in psychology and family-relationship courses.

After divorcing husband No. 2, with whom she is still on good terms, Westheimer met her third husband while skiing. Around the same time, she volunteered at Planned Parenthood, which sparked an interest in the family and sexual health that eventually launched her career as a therapist and radio and television commentator.

“She attributes her success to the unlikelihood of someone like her being in that field,” Schwartz said. “People didn’t feel intimidated by her, and she used her sense of humor to put them even more at ease.”

The role’s biggest challenge for her, Schwartz said, is “being 25 years old and playing a 69-year-old woman.” (Dr. Ruth is now 87, but the play is set a generation earlier.)

“It’s been a real exercise in character work, trying to avoid mimicry,” she said. “Also her dialect, which is a mishmash of German, French, Hebrew and English.”

Solo show ‘mini panic attack’

Schwartz, who grew up in Seattle, moved to Minneapolis in 2008 to attend the Guthrie Theater’s BFA acting program at the University of Minnesota. After graduating, she stuck around because “I was lucky enough to get steady work, a wonderful thing about the Twin Cities theater scene.”

Her first job was playing a few different roles in “Clandestino,” a collaboration with Workhaus Collective at Mixed Blood. “I look kind of pan-ethnic, so I could do both a Hasidic Jew and a Guatemalan immigrant,” she said.

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” will be Schwartz’s first solo show.

“I had a mini panic attack when I found out I got the part, and I’m not quite out of the terrified phase yet,” she said. “But I sought out advice from friends and mentors, and they told me it feels like an athletic feat, that it’s exhilarating to have the audience in the palm of your hand, taking your time to tell a story all by yourself.”