Tovah Feldshuh telling story of ‘Dr. Ruth’ on film for North Coast Rep
Broadway veteran has also just published a memoir, ‘Lilyville,’ about her difficult relationship with her late mother
Last year, Broadway and TV veteran Tovah Feldshuh spent most the year working from home. But as the pandemic waned this spring, the New York native launched into a frenzy of activity that began in April with the publication of her memoir, “Lilyville,” followed by two different productions of the same play, “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” this month.
Based on the surprising life of famed TV and radio sex therapist Ruth K. Westheimer, the solo play by Mark St. Germain was filmed onstage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach for a streaming production that will premiere online Wednesday, June 9. Meanwhile, all this month Feldshuh is performing the same play at a theater in Long Island, N.Y. It’s her first time in front of a live audience in 16 months.
But for Feldshuh, doing the back-to-back “Dr. Ruth” productions was more than just the desire to get back to work. It’s a favor for a friend. Westheimer has followed and supported Feldshuh’s theater career since they met in the early 1970s, and Westheimer was a guest at the weddings of both of Feldshuh’s children.
“We’ve been friends for such a long time, I can’t even remember when we met,” Feldshuh said of the 92-year-old Westheimer. “She was so extremely supportive and empowering for me. After a performance, she’d always greet me and make it clear afterward how she felt, saying: ‘You were great, Tovah, are you listening to me?’”
Westheimer’s words mean a lot to Feldshuh, who spent most of her adult life seeking the approval and affection of her late mother, Lily Feldshuh. Their difficult, but ultimately healing, mother-daughter relationship is the focus of the book “Lilyville: Mother, Daughter and Other Roles I’ve Played.”
Westheimer has always hoped for a Broadway production of “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” Feldshuh hopes to fulfill that mission someday, and the Long Island production is the first step in attracting New York producers.
Back in the 1980s, the 4-foot-7-inch Westheimer became a pop culture sensation for her many appearances on TV and radio, offering frank, often-funny and always enthusiastic sex advice in her thick German accent. She has also written 45 books on sex and sexuality. But “Becoming Dr. Ruth” is about Westheimer’s life before she was famous.
Born in 1928 to an orthodox Jewish family in Weimar, Germany, she lost both of her parents and her aunt in the Holocaust. Before her mother died, she sent 10-year-old Ruth to safety at an orphanage in Switzerland, where she worked as a nanny for a family of Swiss Jews until the age of 16. After the war, she moved to Palestine, where she joined the Haganah paramilitary group. She was trained as a sniper and messenger and was later wounded in the 1947-48 Palestine war. After recuperating, she moved to France and finally the U.S., where she began her studies in human sexuality. In 1980, she began talking publicly about the need for sex education as a way to encourage the use of contraceptives and reduce unwanted pregnancies.
Feldshuh credits Westheimer — and another of her friends, La Jolla clinical psychologist Edith Eiger, 93, who also lost her parents in the Holocaust — for teaching her the power of a positive mental attitude and purposeful action.
“Both women started with nothing in this country and wrote and managed their own journeys with a constant upward spirit that not only took stamina but mental discipline,” Feldshuh said. “They both have a quality where they’ll push the delete button around negative energy. Their gratitude is enormous because they are alive. What happens is that one feels one has the obligation to give back to the planet for the very gift of life.”
David Ellenstein, artistic director of North Coast Rep, spent three weeks directing and rehearsing the play with Feldshuh before filming in May. He said working with a pro like Feldshuh was fun, creative and fruitful. Whenever they would have a thought or question about the script, they could either call up Westheimer or the playwright for insight and advice. St. Germain was also very open to changing a word here and there in the script to improve the piece.
“Everyone is working together to make the play the best it can possibly be,” Ellenstein said in a phone interview during rehearsals in early May. “Tovah is such a wonderful solo performer, and she knows what works.”
After finishing up her second “Dr. Ruth” run in July, Feldshuh said she hopes to do more work promoting “Lilyville.” Feldshuh finished the book while waiting out the pandemic last year, but it was a project she’d been working on for a few years following the death of her mother, Lily, at age 103 in 2014.
Feldshuh and her mother grew close during the last 18 years of Lily’s life, but before that their relationship was always strained. Lily saw her daughter’s work in theater as a lowly “trade” rather than a career, even though Feldshuh earned her Equity card in her teens and was starring on Broadway in the title role of “Yentl” by age 23. Lily also resented Feldshuh’s decision in her early 20s to professionally change her first name, Terri Sue, to her Hebrew school name, “Tovah,” which means “good.”
During her 50-year acting career, Feldshuh has earned four Tony nominations for stage roles in “Yentl,” “Golda’s Balcony,” “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Sarava,” and two Emmy nominations for roles in “Law & Order” and “Holocaust.” She also spent two years on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and played memorable roles in the films “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “A Walk on the Moon.” One of her greatest honors in recent years was meeting several times with the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to prepare for playing the jurist in the Jonathan Shapiro play “Sisters-in-Law” in 2019.
Despite her significant achievements, Feldshuh said her mother found fault in every performance she gave. Even when Feldshuh stopped the show every night in 2013 by hanging upside down from a trapeze in Broadway’s “Pippin,” she said her mother’s response was: “That you should still have to earn a living like this?”
But Feldshuh said she grew to understand her mother’s constant criticism was her way of doing her motherly duty to constantly “fix” her children. Eventually, Feldshuh earned her mother’s praise for her enduring 45-year marriage to Harvard-educated Jewish lawyer Andrew Levy and having two highly successful children. In Lily’s later years, they reached out to each other like trees in an arbor.
“It had a happy ending,” Feldshuh said. “She lived so long, over 103 years, that I was able to solve everything with her. There’s a Persian proverb that ‘a branch in order to bear fruit must learn to bend.’ Mother and I were two separate trees with two different kinds of fruit and flowers on separate lawns, but the branches were able to bower toward each other until they intertwined.”
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is available for on-demand streaming through North Coast Repertory Theatre Wednesday, July 9 through July 4. Tickets are $35 for individual viewing and $54 for group viewing. Visit northcoastrep.org.
“Lilyville: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles I’ve Played” was published April 13 by Hachette Books and is available at bookstores and online.
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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