Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Becoming Dr. Ruth
The Phoenix Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Debra K. Stevens
Photo by Reg Madison Photography
Dr. Ruth Westheimer was a well-known name to anyone who watched TV or listened to the radio in the 1980s and 1990s. Westheimer's various shows that featured frank talk about sex and sexual matters may have been somewhat shocking and controversial at the time, but the sweet and charming way this short, grandmotherly woman delivered her advice put her listeners at ease. However, it turns out there was a lot more behind Westheimer's accent, short stature, and direct sex talk. Mark St. Germain's one-woman show Becoming Dr. Ruth is a charming and moving play that lets the details of Westheimer's fascinating story, before she became the famous sex expert, take center stage. The Phoenix Theatre Company's production features Debra K. Stevens in a glorious, moving and heroic performance as Westheimer.

The play is set in 1997 and takes place entirely in Ruth's Washington Heights, New York, apartment where she is packing up to move across town. It's been two months since her husband Fred has passed away and throughout the course of the 90-minute play, Westheimer talks directly to the audience and receives phone calls from her son and daughter who question her decision to move so soon after the death of her beloved husband. Westheimer also recounts the stories of her past and lets us see how the young Jewish woman grew up to be the famous sex therapist, Dr. Ruth.

Westheimer was born in 1928 Germany as Karola Ruth Siegel. With the rise of Nazism, Jewish families were scrambling to get their children out of the country, and Karola was quickly moved to Switzerland at age ten after her father had been moved to a work camp. Westheimer tells us the heartbreaking story of how both of her parents were assumedly killed in the concentration camps, since she never heard what happened to them once she moved to Switzerland, but also the fascinating details of how she was trained as a sniper for the underground army in Palestine and was wounded by shrapnel and unable to walk for months. Married three times, moving to America with husband number two afforded her new opportunities, including the opportunity to get her doctorate degree. A job doing survey work in Harlem for Planned Parenthood is what set her on track to do sexual therapy work.

St. Germain worked with Westheimer to craft the play, which premiered in 2012 and ran Off-Broadway in 2013, and his dialogue is warm and witty, just like Westheimer. He uses a fairly chronological order in the piece, which works beautifully to portray her fascinating past and to depict the steps she took to get her doctorate and what led to her becoming well-known. Fortunately, he never tries to sugarcoat the struggles she went through and he smartly centers the focus of the play on two recurring themes that are universal: the drive to continually survive and always striving to fulfill your dreams. However, I have a few quibbles with the play and how it uses phone calls that interrupt the forward thrust of the action. While these calls do add some variety to the piece, they almost always arrive right when Ruth is speaking about the Holocaust or another serious topic, which distracts, switches the focus, and stalls the momentum. Fortunately, these calls are less intrusive in the last thirty minutes of the play and the end makes up for the distractions with an incredibly moving and reflective moment where Westheimer talks about how the Holocaust is always present for her. St. Germain's last sentence is a whopper that you'll remember for days after seeing the play.

Debra K. Stevens has appeared in dozens of plays in town and, while she looks much younger than the age of 69 that Ruth is at the time of the play, she is delivering a moving, funny, touching and genuine portrayal of this famous woman. Stevens recreates the famous accent perfectly (her work with dialect coach Diane Senffner pays off beautifully) and she perfectly delivers Westheimer's well-known girlish giggle, body language, and vocal inflections. Her warm interaction and connection with the audience and the way she evokes Westheimer's non-threatening delivery pulls the audience into the story of this amazing woman. Stevens' comic timing, facial reactions, and dramatic delivery work well to evoke the deep sense of passion and larger-than-life personality that made Ruth famous.

Katie McFadzen's direction is clear and direct, with staging that connects Stevens intimately with the audience while also ensuring the many comical and dramatic moments resonate in a realistic way. While the accent, delivery and movement that Stevens uses are very close to Westheimer's, her performance never crosses into caricature, which could be easy to do with less talented people at the helm. Douglas Clarke's set beautifully depicts an apartment in the shambles of being packed up, with the use of archival photos and audio clips to help connect the audience with the people and places in the memories Westheimer tells of her past.

With a wonderful performance from Debra K. Stevens, Becoming Dr. Ruth at Phoenix Theatre Company is a funny, heartbreaking, and emotionally rich theatrical experience—a beautiful depiction of the amazing journey Karola Ruth Siegel took to become Dr. Ruth.

Becoming Dr. Ruth runs through June 27, 2021, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602) 254-2151

Director: Katie McFadzen
Scenic Designer: Douglas Clarke
Properties Coordinator: Stephan McLaughlin
Sound Designer: Marie Quinn
Lighting Designer: Nathaniel White
Costume Designer: Sara Lindsey
Wig Designer: Josh Lutton
Video Coordinator: Kristen Peterson
Dialect Coach: Diane Senffner
Director of Production: Karla Frederick
Stage Manager: Maylea Bauers *
COVID Safety Officer: Kate Leonard

Ruth Westheimer: Debra K. Stevens*
Jodie Weiss: Dr. Ruth (understudy)
Voiceover credits:
Walter: Alex Crossland
Eric: Dwayne Hartford
Male Announcer: James D. Gish
Male Caller: Matravius Avent
Woman Caller 1: Trisha Ditsworth
Woman Caller 2: Cassie Chilton
Woman Caller 3: Katie McFadzen
Young Woman Caller: Michelle Chin
Voiceover: Karla Frederick

* Courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the US