Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Truth About Winnie Ruth Judd
The Phoenix Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Nina West with Seth Rudetsky and Peter and the Starcatcher

The Cast
Photo by Brennen Russell
In the realm of true crime dramas, one of the most infamous and captivating cases is that of Winnie Ruth Judd, the young Phoenix woman accused of the murders of two women, one of whom was dismembered, and stuffing their bodies into trunks and transporting them to California. With an excellent cast of local actors, and co-written by Phoenix playwrights, this sensational tale is receiving an intriguing world premiere production at The Phoenix Theatre Company. It delves deep into the puzzling trial and case surrounding this notorious figure.

Set against the backdrop of 1930s Phoenix, and with a fascinating combination of historical accuracy and theatrical flair, the production offers a gripping exploration of one of Arizona's most sensational murder mysteries. Cathy Dresbach and Ben Tyler's play reconstructs the events leading up to the brutal murders of Agnes Anne LeRoi and Hedvig Samuelson, as well as the subsequent trial and conviction of Winnie Ruth Judd. At the time of the trial, the local Phoenix radio station KOY reenacted the court transcripts each night as a radio drama, and Dresbach and Tyler have used that historical fact as a way to transport the audience back in time to witness the unfolding drama firsthand, using the court testimony of various witnesses and flashback scenes to recreate the murder.

While the "truth" about the case will never actually be known, the authors do their best to depict what they believe happened. As someone who wasn't born in Arizona and who has only lived here for 10 years, I hadn't heard about this case but found myself enthralled by the dramatization and twists and turns in Judd's story. By having the court testimony reenacted as a live radio drama, Dresbach and Tyler provide a fun, and sometime humorous, theatrical approach to the story while also grounding it in the period when the murders took place. You have to imagine it was similar to what listeners felt hearing the court testimony reenacted on their radios each night back in 1932.

The cast is wonderful under Matthew Wiener's direction. Wiener's staging makes good use of the space, with the use of the aisles for some entrances and exits, bringing the characters out into the audience which helps to pull them into the story. Having the nine-person cast play dozens of characters, including having them reenact the court testimony, provides them with the ability to create unique individuals. However, there are times when Wiener's direction approaches broad comedy, which almost threatens the seriousness of Judd's story.

While it is mainly an ensemble show, at the center of the production is the haunting portrayal of Winnie Ruth Judd by Megan Holcomb, who brings a complex blend of vulnerability, strength, uncertainty, and cunning to the role. With a commanding stage presence and a nuanced performance, Holcomb captures the essence of Judd's puzzling personality, leaving the audience questioning her innocence or guilt until the very end.

Louis Farber is great as Jack Williams, the KOY announcer who has the idea to stage the testimonies from the court transcripts for the radio audiences. Cathy Dresbach, Jon Gentry, Marshall Glass, Ron May, Racquel McKenzie, Emily Mohney, and Shad Willingham all do wonderful work as a range of characters, from the relentless prosecutor determined to secure Judd's conviction, to the key witnesses, sympathetic characters, murder victims, Judd's husband, and her lover. All members of the cast bring depth and authenticity to their performances.

Douglas Clarke's scenic design uses a few set pieces to create the feeling of a 1930s Phoenix radio station and the important locations in the story, complete with period-appropriate costumes, hair and makeup, and props by Connie Furr, Josh Lutton, and Sarah Harris, respectively. Nathaniel White's lighting and the sound design by Chris Neumeyer enhance the atmosphere, with subtle cues and sound effects heightening the tension during pivotal moments. Harris' projections provide pertinent dates and archival images which help ground the production in authenticity.

It's clear from Dresbach and Tyler's insightful and well-researched work that The Truth About Winnie Ruth Judd is committed to exploring the complexities of the case and the characters involved in an engaging manner. By rehashing the facts of the trial and the courtroom testimony, it ensures the production is truthful and by adding in depictions of Judd's reactions and some reenactments of events before the murders, it also delves into the psychological motivations and moral ambiguities at play. Phoenix Theatre's production has a great cast, almost all of whom are well-known Arizona actors, and is a compelling and thought-provoking exploration of one of Arizona's most infamous murder mysteries.

The Truth About Winnie Ruth Judd runs through March 17, 2024, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 602-254-2151.

Written by Cathy Dresbach and Ben Tyler
Directed by Matthew Wiener
Scenic Designer: Douglas Clarke
Lighting Designer: Nathaniel White
Costume Designer: Connie Furr
Hair & Makeup Designer: Josh Lutton
Sound Designer: Chris Neumeyer
Intimacy Director: Rachel Finley
Video Designer/Properties Master: Sarah Harris
Stage Manager: Katherine Roll Lang*
Asst. Stage Manager: Nadya Eldurubi

Cast (in alphabetical order):
Ensemble: Cathy Dresbach*
Jack Williams: Louis Farber*
Ensemble: Jon Gentry
Ensemble: Marshall Glass
Winnie Ruth Judd: Megan Holcomb*
Ensemble: Ron May
Ensemble: Racquel McKenzie
Ensemble: Emily Mohney
Ensemble: Shad Willingham*

*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.