Actress successfully channels Dr. Ruth in one-woman show

 Susie Wall performs as Dr. Ruth Westheimer in the New Jewish Theatre’s production of ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth.’ Photo: John Lamb 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Actress Susie Wall flawlessly channels iconic sex therapist Ruth Westheimer in a virtuoso performance in the title role of the New Jewish Theatre’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” 

The play, written by Mark St. Germain, is directed with a steady hand by Jerry McAdams. It runs through Dec. 21 at the Jewish Community Center’s Wool Studio Theatre. 

Wall, a highly gifted stage actor, successfully pulls off the daunting challenge of a one-woman show as well as portraying a still-living and popular global personality. Most Americans are familiar with Dr. Ruth through her frequent appearances on late-night TV and talk shows including “Oprah,” and from her long-running and successful radio and TV programs. She comes across in her public persona as perpetually good humored, intellectually impressive, and one whose work in human sexual therapy and counseling places her in the pantheon of giants in the field. 

St. Louis audiences also know her well from her frequent appearances at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

What is less well-known about Westheimer is her background as a Holocaust escapee from her once seemingly secure home in Frankfurt, Germany; her placement in a harsh “charitable” facility for the duration of the war; and her incredibly audacious and courageous move to pre-Israel Palestine, where she volunteered for the Haganah and became a skilled markswoman in Israel’s War of Independence.

Without being plodding or getting bogged down in too much narrative detail, St. Germain’s script skillfully weaves in the essential facts about Westheimer’s personal and professional lives by having her “invite” the audience to her spacious Washington Heights, N.Y., apartment that she shared with her recently deceased husband, Fred Westheimer. Still awash in mourning, Dr. Ruth carefully wraps memorabilia from around the spacious but cluttered apartment as she prepares to move across town, ignoring the strong advice of her daughter and close friends not to overload her emotions with a too-hasty move.

Just as St. Germain envisioned a virtual duplicate of the Vienna office of the father of psychoanalysis in “Freud’s Last Session,” which the Repertory Theatre produced last year, so too does he imagine the beautiful apartment, laden with symbols of Dr. Ruth’s complicated past as a virtual character in the play. 

A major shout-out is due to the entire production staff, and especially to scenic designer and artist Christie Johnston, for creating what appears to be a real-life apartment with bookshelves groaning with cherished volumes ranging from childhood books to scholarly tomes and Dr. Ruth’s own best-sellers, and dozens of ceramic turtles, an animal that she admires for carrying their homes on their back and their ability to quickly adapt to new surroundings.

Wall is physically taller than Westheimer, but she manages to convince the audience that she is the real deal with her spot-on replication of Dr. Ruth’s German-Israeli-New York blended accents and her high-energy body language. 

The play opens on June 9, 1997, as Dr. Ruth is in the midst of planning her move. As she roams the rooms of her brightly-lit apartment, she pauses to pick up photographs of her beloved Fred, and to hold up a shooting range target board with which she amazed her grandchild by displaying five bulls-eyes, a skill she learned in combat, fighting for Israel’s independence.

The NJT production makes good use of projected images, including a high-definition color photograph of the breathtaking view from her apartment window, and of cherished family images, of her daughter Miriam and son Joel, each in graduation robes. Later the screen shows an enlargement of an adorable image of her three grandchildren, which she says is “proof that Hitler lost and I won.”

We learn much about the often tragic and challenging details of Dr. Ruth’s private life in the course of this riveting play: her separation from her beloved parents, whom she never saw again after she was sent to Switzerland on a Kindertransport; her generosity in giving her beloved yellow-haired doll to a crying 5-year-old girl next to her on a train; her horrific experiences in the holding facility in Switzerland for the duration of the war; and her postwar decision to fulfill her Zionist and idealist dreams by going to Israel, where she learned not only about war but about falling in love with a dashing Israeli soldier named David – one of the husbands whose companionship she shared over the years.

The play re-creates Dr. Ruth’s academic journey, which eventually led her to earn a doctorate in education and her specialty in sex therapy. At her peak, Dr. Ruth was a familiar celebrity in American popular culture and a favorite guest in popular media. She promoted a healthy attitude toward sexuality and its embrace as one of the most life-enhancing aspects of human existence. 

By the time the 90-minute, one-act play is over, the audience gains not only a new appreciation for  the multifaceted career of Dr. Ruth, but also for the actress Wall, who shares Dr. Ruth’s journey in a tour-de-force performance.

Becoming Dr. Ruth’

When:  Through Dec. 21;  7:30 p.m. Wednesday & Thursday;  8 p.m. Saturday;  

2 and 7:30 p.m. selected Sundays 

Where:  Jewish Community Center’s Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

How much:  $38-$42

More info: or 314-442-3283