Conjure up a four-foot-seven-inch dynamo who once served in Israel’s Hagana (Defense Force). Add a back story involving Kindertransport. Complete the portrait with pioneering sex education in print, on the air and on television.
To some this combination might bring to mind a crisp Rod Serling prologue on “The Twilight Zone.” But many will immediately identify this uniquely impactful woman as Dr. Ruth Westheimer (Karola Ruth Siegel), the subject of the fascinating Mark St. Germain one-woman play “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” Veteran actress Anne O’Sullivan fully inhabits the role of the now 90-year-old living legend in a luminous area premiere by New Repertory Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts.
Set in the Washington Heights, New York home where she continues to reside, St. Germain’s tribute has the feisty Westheimer transporting audience members deep into her multifaceted life. As the play begins, the widow speaks of packing the books, photographs and other items she prizes in the numerous boxes around Jeffrey Peterson’s brilliantly detailed set, which is as much of a character as Westheimer herself.
Throughout an alternately stirring and humorous ‘tour,’ Westheimer vividly describes her very different husbands. St. Germain captures the sex therapist’s candor and lack of inhibition even here – especially in speaking of her first husband’s concerns over a certain type of measurement. At times Westheimer speaks to her (unseen) grown-up children Miriam and Joey in stretches that demonstrate her parental caring.
Westheimer led quite a life beyond her sex-ed program. She movingly describes her escape from the Holocaust by way of Kindertransport, a program that got children out of Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1940. Westheimer, who was born in Germany, was one of only 300 youngsters who escaped to Switzerland. In the play, she fondly reminisces about her Walter, her first love, who was killed in Buchenwald. At 17, Westheimer spent time in Israel training to be a sniper.
Under Stephen Nachamie’s crisp direction, O’Sullivan wisely approximates Westheimer’s accent and demeanor in a performance devoid of impersonation. O’Sullivan captures Westheimer’s charming spunk and feistiness in addition to her wisdom and heart.
The outstanding projection design of Johnathan Carr (who earned a richly deserved 2019 IRNE Award for his efforts for the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s revival last year of “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) serves as a kind of running power point amplification of Westheimer’s observations.
Westheimer has an unbounded passion for learning and life. “Becoming Dr. Ruth” – with O’Sullivan’s virtuoso performance – does real honor to an incomparable woman.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth,” New Repertory Theatre, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through May 19. 617-923-8487 or newrep.org.