When Anne O’Sullivan becomes Dr. Ruth

Karola Ruth Siegel was born in Wiesenfeld, Germany in 1928. Not too many years later, she watched as her father was dragged off by the Nazis. With hundreds of other children, she was shipped off, alone, to an orphanage in Switzerland. She never saw her parents again.
As a young woman, she trained as a sniper in the Jewish underground. She was seriously wounded and lost the ability to walk. Decades later, after time spent at the University of Paris, The New School, and Columbia University, she emerged into the world spotlight as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a four-foot-seven pioneer in the psychology of human sexuality who was fluent in four languages.
People know the twinkling eyes and infectious laugh. However, few may be aware of the challenging and complex journey that brought her to international prominence.
Dr. Ruth’s life is chronicled in the inspirational and very personal one-woman drama, “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” Written by Mark St. Germain, the play is being presented by New Repertory Theater in Watertown thorough May 19. It is set in Dr. Ruth’s New York apartment. It’s 1997 and her third husband, Fred Westheimer, has died. As she’s packing her belongings to move, she shares personal stories, life lessons, and advice.
Anne O’Sullivan stars in the title role at New Rep. Born in Limerick, Anne came to America at the age of five, settling in Brooklyn. With more than 140 plays to her credit, her career has taken her from the Williamstown Theatre Festival to the The Old Globe, Yale Rep, and beyond. She has also appeared in film and on television.
When “Becoming Dr. Ruth” was first staged off-Broadway in 2013, Anne was hired to understudy the lead role. She never had the opportunity to go on. But in a remarkable twist of fate, she has since made the role her own, performing “Dr. Ruth” at The Herberger Theatre, Penguin Rep, B Street Theatre, Gable Stage and now at New Rep.
Broadway World has praised her performance, saying, “Anne O’Sullivan’s command of the material is remarkable . . . in the poignant moments, her sensitivity is extraordinary.”
Anne spoke about her work from her home in New York City. Here’s a condensed look at our chat:
Q. Dr. Ruth faced one obstacle after another. What made her such a success?
A. Knowing her background, it feels so much like destiny . . . Everything had to do with her incredible impulsiveness to take a risk . . . she always leapt at opportunities that came her way. She didn’t always know how to solve things, except in the moment. “I do this and then figure it out” . . . And the honor of playing this great woman who’s achieved so much – I never do take it for granted – I always come to this with a sense of it being very much a sacred work.
Q. Is it daunting to play both a real person and someone who’s so beloved?
A. I’d be a fool if I wasn’t daunted. Every day there’s something that happens to me that I find challenging. I remember reading a Georgia O’Keeffe quote – “I’m terrified every single day, but it never stops me” – and I wake up like that. I’m going to say thank you and embrace the day.
Q. Isn’t Dr. Ruth’s story particularly valid in today’s political climate.
A. Considering what is going on in this country, the suffering of so many people, refugees. Here I am telling the story of a refugee who triumphed against daunting odds. Her greatest sustenance was that she was so deeply loved; she was an adored child, by her mother and father and grandmother. Adored and nurtured, coddled – that love that she experienced really nurtured her through all of it. I feel a deep obligation to give myself deeply and fully to telling her story as best I can.
BIR. She has always dealt in facts, never anything sensational.
A. She wasn’t threatening sexually. Because she was this tiny, little woman, it made people able to talk to her, like a Mamma . . . There’s a Hulu documentary coming out about her and it’s wonderful . . . She’s going to be 91 in June and still flies to Israel every year. She teaches at Columbia. She teaches at Princeton . . . She is just very alive.
Q: I know you’ve developed a warm relationship with her.
A.“I said to her, I dream of bringing this to Ireland, this play – and this was a year ago, or maybe two years ago . . . And she just goes, (speaking in Dr. Ruth’s voice) “Do it! Do it now! Don’t think! Just do it!” . . . I think the Irish would go for her story . . . there are similarities to so many people
Q: You’ve also developed a very personal connection to the content of this play.
A. I’ve been an honorary Jew for a long time – when I was in my 20s I read all of the Holocaust literature, I read all of Elie Wiesel and many other diaries by unknown Holocaust survivors – that was just because I fell in love with Judaism . . . I value the Jewish contribution to the world so much. I value the Irish contribution to the world, too, delving into Celtic culture, which is very rewarding to me. And I see similarities between the cultures, Irish and Jewish.
Q: There’s a responsibility in conveying such a personal story to audiences.
A:. Story telling is sacred . . . I do feel we are at our noblest when we give our hearts to telling stories to people that, you know, we love and believe in. I’ve been a spiritual seeker all my life . . . acting has been part of my spiritual seeking, I guess.

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.

“Becoming Dr. Ruth,” through May 19, New Repertory Theatre, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown. Info: 617-923-8487 or newrep.org.