Holocaust orphan. Israeli sniper. Sex guru.
There aren’t a lot of people who can be described with that particular trifecta, but one who can is Ruth Westheimer, the pop culture icon more commonly known as Dr. Ruth.
Her life story, told in Becoming Dr. Ruth, is now on stage at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, where it will continue its run until Feb. 17. The Feb. 14 show is the community partner night, when a portion of ticket sales will go to Temple Sinai Sisterhood.
In the play, a 69-year-old Ruth Westheimer (she is now 90) tells the story of her life to the audience, from her childhood fleeing Nazi Germany to her present day as a renowned sex therapist.
“What she lived through in one life, 10 of us have not lived through,” said Drucie McDaniel, who stars as Westheimer in the 90-minute one-woman show. “But she didn’t allow it to defeat her. She always used it as something to buoy her up to something higher, and it was always about helping other people.”
Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in 1928 Germany to a Jewish family. At the age of 10, she left Germany on a Kindertransport to Switzerland. Her parents died in the Holocaust.
After the war, she immigrated to Israel and joined the Haganah, where she learned to be a sniper. She also spent some time in France.
By the time she immigrated to the United States, Westheimer had already been divorced. She had to navigate her new life in New York as a single mother.
Despite those obstacles, she flourished. She earned several degrees and married a third time. And, of course, she was given her own radio show, which launched her career as a sex therapist.
“It’s not just called Dr. Ruth or The Dr. Ruth Story. It’s Becoming Dr. Ruth,” McDaniel said. “All the circumstances of her life, the good and bad, are what ultimately gave rise to the person that she became.”
Like many, McDaniel grew up seeing Dr. Ruth’s familiar face. She was like a Betty White — an old, sweet lady who “talked dirty and would surprise you,” McDaniel said. So when McDaniel learned more about Westheimer’s past while working on this production, “all of it” was a surprise.
The play opens in Westheimer’s apartment, where she has lived for decades. Westheimer is planning to move to a new home, and as she packs up the apartment, she comes across objects that spark memories of her past.
Tony Braithwaite, the artistic director at Act II Playhouse, said one-person plays work well in the playhouse’s small theater, so he is always looking for those kinds of shows. He decided to stage Becoming Dr. Ruth after reading the script at someone’s suggestion.
The story of Westheimer’s life amazed him, particularly the fact that she fought in Israel’s War of Independence.
“That blew me away,” Braithwaite said. “She’s 4-foot-7, for God’s sake.”
Braithwaite, along with Director Dan O’Neil, auditioned dozens of actresses for the part of Dr. Ruth.
But that actress would need to fill some very specific shoes.
Audiences would have a clear image as to what Dr. Ruth should look and sound like, so they needed someone who was short like her and could pull off her accent, which is described as German/French/Israeli/American.
“[McDaniel is] not doing an exact recreation of Dr. Ruth’s voice,” said O’Neil, who was a student of McDaniel’s at the University of the Arts. “She’s not doing an exact impression. She doesn’t look exactly like her, but she’s done a really good job of capturing the essence of Dr. Ruth.”
McDaniel said that there are challenges to playing a real person that playing a fictional character does not have.
“You don’t want it to just be an imitation,” McDaniel said. “You also need to pay homage to the actual person. You just want to do it honor, and that’s a responsibility.”
Westheimer came to see the show the first night of the preview — unbeknownst to McDaniel.
Braithwaite decided to keep Westheimer’s presence in the audience a secret because it was McDaniel’s first night performing the show in front of a public audience, and he didn’t want to make her more nervous.
After the performance Braithwaite got on stage and let everyone, particularly McDaniel, know that Westheimer was there.
McDaniel’s jaw dropped when she found out.
Westheimer joined her on the stage, told McDaniel she had done a great job and asked the audience for questions.
“She was remarkable, so kind to me and just so generous and loved our production,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said she imagined that Westheimer thought, when she asked the audience for question, that they would have a therapy session. Instead, the audience wanted to know more about her life.
At one point during the Q&A, Westheimer said she used to talk about her experience as a Holocaust survivor to combat deniers. Now, she wants to combat Holocaust fatigue.
“So much of the play is about her being a survivor,” Braithwaite said, “a literal survivor of the Holocaust but also a survivor in general, if you know what I mean. She says at the end of the play — she holds up a picture of her grandchildren — and she says, ‘When I look at them, I know that Hitler lost and I won.’”