Tovah Feldshuh on “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and the Return of Live Theater – The Forward


At the beginning of Become Dr Ruth, Tovah Feldshuh hangs out on stage in an unrivaled bushy blonde wig. She walks around the living room of an apartment cluttered with papers, moving boxes, Judaic figurines and turtles, stammering instructions over the phone with a feverish accent, with French and German accents. Then she stops.

A wave of shock overwhelms her as she scans the audience. She quickly ends the phone call and returns to center stage. Her face beams with a smile as she welcomes his company with outstretched arms, saying “I’m so glad you’re here!”

Although Mark St. Germain’s biographical piece of a woman was written years before the pandemic, its first moments seem particularly prescient. Playing at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, NY, Become Dr Ruth finds a Dr Ruth K. Westheimer isolated amid preparations to leave her apartment after her husband’s death in 1997. As she packs photographs and books into boxes, she tells her life story to her company – the public of the theater – whose presence she addresses with a mixture of joy and wonder.

“She’s so thrilled to talk to other human beings,” Tovah Feldshuh said of her character in an interview with Forward.

When I saw the show last weekend, the feeling was mutual. As one of the first professional theater productions since pandemic restrictions began to ease, Become Dr Ruth looks as much like a return to the theater as it does to the protagonist’s apartment.

“It’s phenomenal,” Feldshuh said. “We are all so thrilled to gather around the campfire called a well-told story, which the Greeks wrote about, which is the theater.”

Sitting among a masked, fully vaccinated audience scattered across 85 of the theater’s 300 seats, I couldn’t help but think about how both surreal and familiar it was to be back in a theater. The last time I got out of it was one of my last pre-pandemic weekends in college. I finished the last performance of a play I was in on a girls soccer team. Long after our friends, teachers, and parents were gone, my castmates and I blew up some gum and took the set apart. As the last moments of February waned, I stepped out into the wintry air and haven’t been back since.

I had forgotten how much I had missed the rustle of other bodies, the paranoia over a pre-show cellphone announcement and the criticism I heard in the lobby after the show of “It would have been better if. I had had my hearing aids ”. Above all, I had missed feeling the visceral changes of emotion, at the nanosecond, that an artist can only really convey only a few meters away.

Although Covid precautions separate production from a perfectly normal night at the theater, Feldshuh chooses to be grateful, she said. “Is it harder to get a standing ovation?” Yes. Is it harder for people to laugh when they are isolated? Yes. Are they laughing? Yes. Are they standing? Yes they do.

A frequent theatrical enthusiast, Westheimer’s first trip to the theater was to see the play that tells her life story. “I’m not a theater critic,” she said, “But I think Tovah does a great job.”

Feldshuh, whose 50-year acting career includes roles such as Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Golda Meir, is happy to emulate her character’s optimism. “I love the play and playing the part so much because my attitude towards life is similar to Ruth’s. It’s just that Ruth’s positive mental attitude is on steroids all the time, ”Feldshuh said. “She is probably the most relentlessly lofty spirit I have ever encountered in my life.”

To demonstrate this, Feldshuh slipped into Westheimer’s signature cadence, ending the sentences with an emphatic rise in height. “She chooses to be uplifting. She chooses tikkun, to fix the world.

“I dedicate myself to transformational acting”

Become Dr Ruth traces Westheimer’s journey of a ten-year-old Jewish girl in Nazi Germany who was sent to Switzerland for her esteemed career as a sex therapist in the United States. “Ruth is like a mitzvah machine,” Feldshuh said. “She’s a person dedicated to fixing the world because she survived and not 1,500,000 children.”

Throughout Feldshuh’s performance, a deep sense of grief sometimes rises to the surface of the character’s sunshine. She reveals enough to allow audiences to not only glimpse Karola, the orphan child inside Dr. Ruth, but also to recognize how she chooses to make the most of the tragedy.

“You can’t rewrite history, but you can write your own story,” Feldshuh said. “She couldn’t rewrite her grandmother’s death, but she could write her life, and she wrote it with a lot of will and determination.”

To prepare for the role, Feldshuh got to know his character. She visited Westheimer in his apartment. “She read every line. She made me read every line and then she reread it to get my nuances, ”Westheimer said.

“I am dedicated to transformational acting,” Feldshuh said. “That is, if I, Tovah Feldshuh, can play Peter Pan, think about what you can do.” At another point in our interview, she announced, “I’m going to do Katharine Hepburn” and adopted a perfect mid-Atlantic drawl.

Feldshuh asked the theater to build her costume based on the photos she had taken of Westheimer. On opening night, without any coordination, Westheimer wore the same outfit, Feldshuh said.

“Tovah made Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Tovah made Golda Meir,” Westheimer said. “Look at the company I keep! “

For Westheimer, promoting the play is an act of remembrance, not selfishness. “I strongly think it’s like a tombstone for my family who don’t have graves,” she said.

Westheimer calls Feldshuh almost every day to tell her how honored she is and to offer to have as much talk as possible, Feldshuh said. The two women hope the piece will arrive in New York after it closes in Sag Harbor.

“I know he will have an audience because people love this woman,” Feldshuh said.

Become Dr Ruth plays at the Bay Street Theater until June 27. The remaining tickets are available at the box office.

A filmed production of an earlier version of the play is available through the North Coast Repertory Theater until July 11. Tickets are available here.

Tovah Feldshuh on ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth’ and the Return of Live Theater


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