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Posts Tagged ‘mark st. germain’

Becoming Dr. Ruth
by Mark St. Germain
Directed by Jerry McAdams
New Jewish Theatre
December 7, 2015

Susie Wall Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a person who is known in popular culture mostly for two things–her name and her frank and enthusiastic talk about sex.  Few people know much about her other than her job, I would imagine.  Mark St. Germain’s one-woman play, Becoming Dr. Ruth seeks to tell us more about the woman behind the name, and New Jewish Theatre’s production starring Susie Wall is an engaging, informatative anchored by a very strong leading performance.

Personally, my impressions of Dr. Ruth before seeing this play came more from parodies of her on old 80’s episodes of Saturday Night Live than from the woman herself, so it’s somewhat surprising to me to learn of her eventful and sometimes adventurous life.  St. Germain’s script is fairly pedestrian, setting Dr. Ruth in her apartment preparing for a move, whereupon she suddenly notices she has an audience and begins telling stories. As she travels around the room picking up items to pack, she’s prompted to remember her childhood in Germany, and her beloved parents and grandmother. She tells how she was sent to Switzerland as a child to avoid the Holocaust, and how she still wonders exactly what happened to her parents. We learn of her children, both of whom she talks to on the phone during the play, and of her three marriages–most notably her third and happiest, to Manfred “Fred” Westheimer. We learn of her involvement in the early years of the nation of Israel, and of her coming to America, getting her advanced degrees and eventually becoming a sex therapist, radio show host and pop culture figure.  She’s presented as a personable, resilient woman, who has survived great tragedy and hardship and found meaning and made a name for herself in her chosen profession.  It’s an interesting and occasionally fascinating story, but the real strength in this production is in the performance rather than the script.

Susie Wall is obviously taller than the real Dr. Ruth, and the red outfit she wears (provided by costumer designer Teresa Doggett) and hairstyle call to mind Nancy Reagan as much as the famous sex therapist, although Wall brings so much vibrancy and personality to the role that it’s easy to forget she doesn’t really look like the real person. Wall is a delightful mixture of charm, audacity, and empathy as this surprisingly complex woman who has become an unlikely cultural icon.  We see the tragedy of losing her parents and her whole childhood way of life through her eyes, and we see how her childhood experiences have informed the woman she has become. Although the script is predictable, Wall brings a sense of spontaneity and energy to it, and she’s a joy to watch.  As she moves around throughout Cristie Johnston’s well-appointed and sufficiently cluttered apartment set, we get to know Dr. Ruth as a person because of Wall’s fully invested performance. The technical elements-as is always the case at NJT–are also top-notch and add to the overall experience. In addition to the set and costumes, Michael B. Perkins’s projections are also notable, and contribute to illustrating Dr. Ruth’s reflections.

Dr. Ruth has led a long and extremely full life, and this show manages to let us get to know her not just as a cultural figure, but as a survivor.  Her persistence and warmth of personality are clearly evident, and Wall’s portrayal of her is the most important part of this show.  Even if you don’t know much about Dr. Ruth, this show is worth seeing for Wall’s excellent performance.

Susie Wall Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

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Freud’s Last Session

by Mark St. Germain

Suggested by The Question of God by Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

Directed by Michael Evan Haney

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio Theatre

November 3, 2013

Barry Mulholland, Jim Butz Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Barry Mulholland, Jim Butz
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Two famous 20th Century intellectuals—known for their widely opposing viewpoints—meet for conversation, debate, and a few personal revelations on an afternoon in London at the beginning of World War II.  This is the premise for Freud’s Last Session, the latest production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Theatre.  Even though the depicted meeting of famed psychoanalyst and atheist Sigmund Freud with Christian apologist and writer C. S. Lewis is fabricated for the play and never actually took place, this well-realized and brilliantly cast production makes me wish that it had actually happened. 

While this play is inspired by a series of (hypothetical) debates, the structure of it is much more of a conversation than a debate, and the aim seems to be to accurately portray Freud’s and Lewis’s views, but also show them as real men with strengths and weakness as opposed to idealizations. While I went into this play knowing a lot more about Lewis than about Freud, I learned a lot about both men. Ostensibly a conversation about their different views on the existence of God, the discussion also drifts into topics of war, music, sex, suicide, both men’s relationships with their fathers, and more.  It’s a play that can very easily seem didactic and dry without the right staging and cast, but this production is so fully realized that it brings these characters and their time and setting to life and a vivid and emotionally engaging way.   These men are both brilliant intellectuals, but on opposing sides and still fascinated to learn about one another, and how their experiences shaped their beliefs.

The casting is nothing short of ideal.  Mulholland portrays the elderly, physically declining Freud as unfailingly curious intellectually, but in a more agressive and confrontational manner than Butz’s more gentle and inquiring Lewis. Suffering from terminal mouth cancer and dealing with bouts of extreme pain as well as reflecting on various regrets and life experiences, Mulholland portrays a Freud who is at once determined and weary, displaying his frailty physically in his slightly hunched-over posture shuffling gait, but displaying a strong energy in his speech, and a tendency to get carried away with his ideas, and and  and very curious about Lewis’s relatively new-found faith. Butz, in turn, plays Lewis in all of his complexity as well, as a man eager to learn more about life, and in a sense of continued wonder about his reluctant but joyful conversion.  He is all politeness and a little bit of trepidation at first, but soon is every bit as energetic as Freud.  I think the interaction between these two brilliant actors portraying two brilliant thinkers is the high point of this play.  Both men play off of each other expertly, and their intellectual sparring and witty banter, as well as some highly emotional moments as Freud reflects on his mortality and Lewis recalls the horrors of his experiences in World War I, bring depth to these characters and make them real for the audience.  This also is the most sympathetic portrayal of Freud in particular that I’ve ever seen. Lewis has had his dramatic representation in the play and movies of Shadowlands, but this  play show a younger, even more idealistic Lewis. This isn’t just an exercise in historical fantasy with these two actors. They bring a sense of depth and immediacy to the proceedings that is fascinating to witness.  

The production brings the audience into a fully realized experience of the time and place, as well.  Freud’s London study is brought to life by set designers Peter and Margery Spack, well appointed with books, various religious artifacts (which Freud collects), cluttered desk and the iconic analyst’s couch.  The costumes, designed by  Elizabeth Eisloeffel help to define both the time period and the specific personalities of the characters–the older, formally dressed Freud in his three-piece suit and the younger, more laid-back Lewis in his sweater and sport coat.  The 1930’s flavor is also enhanced by the use of music, authentic-sounding radio broadcasts updating the progress of the war, and other elements (air raid sirens, gas masks) emphasizing the looming threat of violence and uncertainty in the lives of Londoners of the day. It’s a trip back in time, and a completely engaging one.

As for the issues presented in this play, the goal doesn’t seem to be convincing the audience to believe one way or the other. In the vividly realized characterizations, both Freud and Lewis are firmly convinced, and neither is likely to change his mind as a result of one afternoon’s conversation, and I don’t think anyone in the audience (whether they side with Freud or Lewis, or otherwise) will change their opinion either, but I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that thinking people of drastically differing viewpoints can engage each other respectfully and honestly, and grow to respect and even admire one another despite their disagreements and maybe even learn more about themselves and their world in the process.  I think that’s a valuable lesson in any age, even if the actual meeting that is presented here is imaginary.  That message is communicated with much poignancy in the superb performances of Butz and Mulholland, and in the strong presentation and staging of this excellent and thought-provoking production.

Jim Butz, Barry Mulholland Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jim Butz, Barry Mulholland
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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