City Pages Reviews Becoming Dr. Ruth

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."

Lavender Reviews Becoming Dr. Ruth

Dr. Ruth - Heroine of Sexual Sanity Charmingly Rendered by Miriam Schwartz

By John Townsend
August 25, 2015

Actress Miriam Schwarz charms in Becoming Dr. Ruth, the solo bio-play about the life of Ruth K. Westheimer, a groundbreaker in straight talk about sex. Set in her New York apartment in 1997 when Ruth is 69 years old, playwright Mark St. Germain is more about celebrating than excavating this remarkable woman’s life. It plays at the Highland Park Center Theater as an engaging Minnesota Jewish Theater production directed by Craig Johnson.

There are captivating stories she tells us of losing her family to the horrors of the Nazis, being sent to Switzerland by Hitler’s nefarious Kindertransport, then having to deal with abuse there. Yet through it all, Ruth never lost her sunny disposition. A miracle in itself.

Indeed, Dr. Ruth is a unique figure who should be saluted by any person who values sexual freedom and expression and if you are peeved at her mixed feelings about NBA Player Jason Collins coming out, look deeper. She is no homophobe. Knowing what the Nazis did to gays and understanding how innately hostile vast numbers of Americans of all races are to gayness, she simply cautions to be aware of how coming out will affect you and the ripple effect it may well have on others. This, by the way, happens to also be a common view held by millions of out gays, lesbians, and bisexuals themselves. Hers is a valid perspective and too many activists still aggressively promote coming out even if and when it is unwise. Every single GLBT person in the U.S., closeted, out, or semi-out, has benefited from her vocal pro-sex attitudes.

That said, Dr. Ruth’s advice has usually been aimed at heterosexuals in love or with concerned parents. But she always maintained a sex-positive overview in the face of that and the primacy of there being respect among sex partners. Being a Jew who was up against the dark side so much when young, she got a visceral sense of what mattered and what did not. She has no trace of puritanism and she prizes classic Jewish attitudes on sexuality as being a natural and beautiful part of life to be relished and to be thankful for. And she knows the scripture to back her up!

When Westheimer hit the radio airwaves in the ’80s as an almost stereotypically sweet little matronly lady, she was numinously powerful as she busted that stereotype with cheery, logical, matter-of-fact sex talk at a time when sex in general was under irrational attack because of grotesque ignorance stigmatization surrounding HIV/AIDS and AIDS hysteria. She has been supportive of homosexuality and lesbianism and has championed safer sex. I think of her as someone who brought sanity and charm to the vitriolic attacks on persons with HIV/AIDS — an endearing woman who melted away erotophobia and perhaps, most important of all, shame. Just imagine a four-foot, seven-inch bundle of cheer, speaking with a German accent about all kinds of sexual issues, including kink, at the time when Ronald Reagan, Nancy “Just Say No” Reagan, and Jerry Falwell dominated the national zeitgeist.

Ruth set the table for future great sex talkers like Dan Savage and Cindy Gallop to dig deeper into concepts she gave the green light to. Those two wonderful sex thinkers stand on her shoulders. Not to mention, a widened public interest in serious sexual inquiry. Hence, the continued interest in formidable sexual insurgents like Camille Paglia and the late Gore Vidal, and the rise of brilliant contemporary researchers, such as Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha. All these have a more receptive public thanks to Dr. Ruth shining her light.

Predictably, St. Germain plays it safe, bordering on shallow, which is characteristic of his plays. There’s no discussion of AIDS and, not surprisingly, he barely scratches the surface on the width and depth of Dr. Ruth’s sexual insights. But lucky for him, Schwarz saves the day!

Though Schwarz is far too young for the role, she captures Westheimer’s spirit and Jewish sensibility to fine effect and does her best to overcome St. Germain’s goody-two-shoes style. The audience the night I attended was clearly won over.

The Star Tribune Reviews Jericho

'Jericho': Small Production with Big Impact

By John Townsend , Special to the Star Tribune 

April 22, 2015 

Divisions among Jewish Americans flare up in Jack Canfora’s brilliant comedy-drama “Jericho,” at the Highland Park Community Theater, the final offering of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s 20th season.

It’s New York City, four years after Sept. 11, 2001. Beth (Anna Sutheim) lost her husband, Alec, in the Twin Towers attack and now has an easygoing Jewish boyfriend, Ethan (Max Polski). Beth’s father was born in Palestine but she doesn’t identify with his homeland.

Ethan’s brother, Josh (Ryan M. Lindberg), escaped the towers during the collapse. This compelled him to become a firebrand for Zionism. Obsessed with news reports on terrorism and carnage, he sees Jews as constantly under attack. Josh incessantly derides his wife, Jessica (Miriam Schwartz), for her grammar, her preference for television entertainment over news, and mostly for not wanting to move to Israel.

When Ethan brings Beth to Thanksgiving dinner at his mother’s home in Jericho, a Long Island town, Josh rails against Palestine. But it’s not Beth who reacts, it’s Jessica. The dynamic Schwartz is scathing in her attack.

Director Warren C. Bowles’ riveting cast captures the emotional volatility triggered by religious/political bullying. Maggie Bearmon Pistner charms as the brothers’ guilt-tripping mother and Michael Torsch is likable as Beth’s therapist — a man who reminds her of her late husband. Lindbergh and Sutheim give soulful performances that culminate in final poetic passages that movingly cap a powerful work of theater.

The Pioneer Press reviews Jericho

Minnesota Jewish Theatre's 'Jericho' is Fueled by Tragedy, but Lifts Heart

By Renee Valois
Special to the Pioneer Press 


The walls that surrounded Jericho came tumbling down in ancient Jewish and Christian texts, but other things crumble in Jack Canfora's "Jericho" from Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. The first major fall happened before the play begins in 2005: the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, which dramatically impacts the lives of everyone in the play.

But the show is not merely another rehash of the 9/11 disaster. It's more about how we cope with tragedy in our lives and how things may never be the same afterward -- and yet we continue on. That sounds grim, but Canfora has included plenty of sharp one-liners in his script to make us laugh in the midst of the turmoil -- and director Warren C. Bowles has assembled a fine cast that ably jumps between drama and humor.

Relationships also crash in this play -- largely fueled by guilt. Here's where Canfora occasionally stumbles into soap-opera territory. Does Beth really have to tell her husband she's leaving him the night before 9/11, when he leaves early to go to work and dies?

Anna Sutheim makes us like and believe in Beth, who sees a female therapist, but actually sees and hears only her husband whenever she looks at Dr. Kim. Michael Torsch does a fine job of portraying both the doctor and the husband Beth sees and talks to in delusions that she recognizes aren't real.

Beth has finally started dating a man, Ethan (Max Pol ski), who brings her to Thanksgiving with his family at the house where he and his brother grew up in Jericho, N.

Ethan's brother Josh (Ryan M. Lindberg) -- obviously named like Joshua at the battle of Jericho -- and his wife, Jessica (Miriam Schwartz), are on the verge of divorce because Josh escaped the Tower on 9/11 (more guilt) and has embraced a stringent practice of Judaism as a result, criticizing everyone and everything for not following his path.

Beth's family background also causes a bit of an uproar, and the matriarch, Rachel (Maggie Bearmon Pistner), has plans for her children that don't sit well.

Sparks fly. In fact, we're on the verge of a bonfire.

Fine acting and directing and a clever set by Michael Hoover make for a worthy production -- as do wry lines, such as when Jessica rebukes her husband for an "oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or Fox News."

"Jericho" is all about the ways in which relationships and people may fall down, but the production itself is always on solid ground.