Defying All Odds: ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth’ Explores Origin Story of Renowned Sex Therapist at Bay Street Theater

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Tovah Feldshuh and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Courtesy Bay Street Theater.

At age 92, Ruth Westheimer still talks about sex from morning to night.

But on a recent Wednesday afternoon, from the Washington Heights apartment she has called home for the past five decades, her work as “Dr. Ruth” — a renowned psychosexual therapist who rocketed to stardom by speaking frankly about sex on the radio — did not dominate the conversation.

It was how she got there.

“There’s no question: I did not know that I would be a sex therapist,” she said in her thick, instantly recognizable German accent. “That came by chance.”

Her origin story defies all odds — from war and genocide to poverty and prejudice — and pivots into a tale of resilience, strength and optimism, as told in “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” a one-woman show by Mark St. Germain starring Tovah Feldshuh that opens Friday, June 4, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, which just so happens to be Westheimer’s 93rd birthday.

“Not just to me, but to millions, she is a complete inspiration,” Feldshuh said in a phone interview. “The rainbow arch of her life is not to be believed and it had many, many clouds, lightning, and not even thunderstorms — hurricanes, tornadoes — enter her life. And she not only made the best of it, she created her own script for how she wanted to live life — and she achieved it.”

Born in 1928, Karola Ruth Siegel spent the first 10½ years of her life in a warm, Orthodox Jewish home with her mother, father and grandmother. They lived in a small village outside of Frankfurt, Germany, and they were happy until November 1938, she said, when the Nazis came for her father — and took him.

She still remembers their black boots and the way he turned to smile and wave, in an attempt to reassure his only child, right before he jumped into their truck. Two months later, it was the same smile and wave she gave to her mother and grandmother as she boarded the Kindertransport, a train and rescue mission that whisked her away to safety within an orphanage in Switzerland.

When letters from her family stopped coming in 1941, she knew she would never see them again. It was there that she truly became an orphan.

“It is not easy because some of the happenings, which everybody will see in the play, were tragic,” Westheimer said. “But I have the ability to make the best of it and one of the reasons that I was able to do that, even though it was painful, is that the first 10 and a half years of my life, I was in a loving household with a mother, a father and a grandmother.”

After World War II, the immigrant adopted her middle name to sound less German and emigrated again — this time to Palestine, where she joined the Haganah, the Jewish freedom fighters, as a sniper. Standing at 4 feet, 7 inches tall, she fought for the country’s independence before relocating to Paris, France, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne and taught kindergarten.

Her final move came in 1956, to the United States, where she earned her master’s degree in sociology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School of Social Research, followed by a doctorate in education from Columbia University Teacher’s College, where she eventually became a professor herself.

“I needed a part-time job and I got a position for Planned Parenthood of New York City,” Westheimer said. “That changed my life.”

Her experience training and supervising para-professionals — who collected the contraception and abortion histories of about 2,000 women in Harlem — pushed her to apply as a postdoctoral researcher under Helen Singer Kaplan at New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center, furthering her education in human sexuality.

“Helen Singer Kaplan was a wonderful mentor,” Westheimer said. “And look what happened! I’m going to be, on June 4, I’m going to be 93! And I still teach at Columbia University Teacher’s College every spring and I still talk about sex from morning to night.”

A light-hearted laugh escaped her. Three decades later, she is just as enthusiastic about what she calls “sexual literacy” as she was in 1981 — the year she landed her first radio show, “Sexually Speaking,” that started her on her path to becoming the most famous sex therapist in the world. Today, she is the author of 46 books and counting, including last year’s reissue of “Heavenly Sex: Sexuality and the Jewish Tradition.”

“It is very important that people are sexually literate,” she said. “For example, Sigmund Freud should have taken a course with me. He was a genius, but ignorant in areas of female sexuality. He said that any woman who needs clitoris stimulation in order to have an orgasm is an immature woman. Nonsense! Every woman, the clitoris needs to be involved.”

Westheimer’s opinions of the Austrian neurologist aside, it was a play on Freud that first connected her with St. Germain — one that he had written and that she saw at least four times off-Broadway, he said.

“Ruth never, ever announces herself,” the playwright said. “If she likes something, she walks backstage and nobody stops her because they say, ‘Oh, it’s Dr. Ruth!’ She had gone back several times to talk to the actors and Martin Rayner, who played Freud, said to me, ‘She’s really had a fascinating life, you should write about her.’ And I said, ‘Well, what, a 15-minute skit about her radio show? I don’t know what you mean.’”

All it took was reading one of her books for St. Germain to immediately change his tune. But before he could even approach Westheimer with the idea, Rayner had bad news to relay.

“She’d said, ‘Tell him I’m not interested. I am a public figure, he can do what he wants, but I will have no part of it,’” St. Germain recalled. “So I said okay, I got my nose a little out of joint and I called her — she was still practicing then — and I just left a message.”

The next morning, his phone rang. “Be here tomorrow at 10 o’clock for coffee,” Westheimer told him.

“I had seen his play about Freud and I liked the play very much,” she recalled. “When he came to see me, first I was a little reluctant. I have so many autobiographies about me, I have so many books, and then I met Mark and within five minutes, I got out all the books that I had, and then Mark said, ‘So are we doing the play?’ And I said, ‘Sure!’”

Within two months, the play was written, Westheimer and St. Germain were fast friends, and Debra Jo Rupp — who portrayed Kitty Forman on “That ’70s Show” — stepped into the lead role in 2012.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is never going to happen past this. How many people are going to be able to do Dr. Ruth? And how many people are that short?’” St. Germain said. “What I found is that it made no difference at all. People have done it all over the place, and they can be 6 feet tall. It didn’t matter. It’s mainly trying to get that accent down.”

Without hesitation, Feldshuh — a four-time Tony Award nominee — can drop into Westheimer’s voice with shocking accuracy. The accent, inflection and cadence are spot on, fine tuned by hours upon hours of research and time spent with the sex therapist.

“I know her many, many years,” Westheimer said. “She used to lift me when she saw me, but I don’t let her lift me anymore. At the age of almost 93, I don’t let her lift me. But she came here, she read the whole play, and she’s a wonderful, wonderful actress.”

With her reservoir of knowledge, Feldshuh can now get on stage and, without thinking, become Westheimer — a woman she considers family — discovering the story as she goes along, as if she lived it.

“This is how Dr. Ruth saved lives,” Feldshuh said of her career. “This is what she calls ‘tikkun olam,’ which is her greater purpose for helping the world. She never thought that sex therapy would be her way, but she feels it is her obligation to do something to better this world.”

For Feldshuh, acting is her own “tikkun olam,” she said, and the play will mark her first role in a theater since February 2020, after her own bout with COVID-19 and, last month, publishing her memoir, “Lilyville: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles I’ve Played.”

“This is a fantastic opportunity to return to the community and the campfire, which is thousands of years old, that we call theater — to hear a story, I hope, well told because that is my obligation,” she said. “That’s how I repair the world. I say to the audience, ‘Come be with me and I will take you on a journey, and you can forget your troubles. Come inside this story and see what ways it gives you a fresh inspiration or a fresh purpose.’

“If anybody gives us relentless vision and positive energy,” she continued, “it is Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer.”

Throughout her immense successes, Westheimer has never forgotten where she came from — from refusing to move out of her Washington Heights apartment to the journey that brought her there. After losing her own family to the Holocaust, her childhood inspired her to help people by teaching them about love and relationships, communicating honestly and openly — and, of course, about sex.

“Despite the fact that we are in 2021, there is still plenty to be taught about sexuality,” she said. “First of all, go and see the play. You will learn something about good sex.”

“Becoming Dr. Ruth,” starring Tovah Feldshuh and written by Mark St. Germain, will open on Friday, June 4, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, as part of its 30th anniversary summer season, “Come Together.” Performances will continue through June 27, on Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., and matinee performances on Sundays and Wednesdays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $75 and $85, or $25 for first responders. Masks are required. For more information, visit baystreet.org.

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