Before Eileen Koteles spoke to Dr. Ruth Westheimer for the first time, she was in for a surprise.
Koteles, who is starring as Westheimer in an upcoming production of “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” got the famous German-American sex therapist’s phone number through a friend who was able to connect with Westheimer’s daughter.
“I called, and was so concerned about this little old woman that I pictured in my mind,” Koteles said. “I’ll time it, and I won’t be long. I’ll tell her how I got her number so she won’t be scared.”
Turns out, Koteles’ worries were unfounded. Westheimer, not nearly as frail as one might think a 94 year old would be, was on her way out the door and headed to another interview. Koteles adopted Westheimer’s accent – something she’s perfected in her time in the play – as she recounted the story; “Yes, yes, I’m sorry I don’t have time!”
“That was a real gift,” Koteles said. “Just to feel her energy on the phone.”
“Becoming Dr Ruth” is a play by Mark St. Germain that explores the life and work of Westheimer – including parts of the story that the greater public might not know. Before her work as sex therapist, author, and professor, Westheimer was a Holocaust survivor, and later joined the Haganah – a Zionist, paramilitary organization in Jerusalem – as a sniper.
Koteles has been an actor for years. She went to the University of Florida, where she studied performance. After graduation, she moved to New York before deciding the northeast was a bit too cold for her liking, and heading back to Florida, where she got her Actor’s Equity card. She remained in Actors Equity for 10 years, and ended up in Atlanta roughly a decade ago.
This is not the first time Koteles has starred in the one-woman show. She starred in a production at the Artistic Civic Theater in Dalton in February of 2020, just weeks before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s where producer Sandy Ferko and director George Fox saw her perform.
“When it was over, we were stunned,” Ferko said of her experience viewing the production. “We were in the car driving back, and George and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to bring this to Atlanta.’ And then, three weeks later, everybody was quarantined”
It took a little over a year for the trio to make good on the promise of bringing the show to Atlanta. In 2021, Koteles performed the show at Dunwoody’s Stage Door Theatre, directed by Fox. But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic still put restrictions on how many people could see the show.
“We were limited to how big the audience could be because of COVID,” Ferko said. “When it was over, we looked at each other and said, okay we’ve got to do this again so we can allow more people to see it.”
So, the show will once again come to the Atlanta area at Temple Emanu-El on Nov. 13, 17, 19, and 20. Koteles said that even though she’s been performing this part for years at this point, she’s still able to find new aspects of the character every time she returns to the text. She said working with Fox has also helped her find new things to try – particularly when it comes to comedy. And sometimes, that comedy is necessary.
“She has some dark places that she goes to, and yet she refuses to completely go there,” Koteles said of her experience playing the character. “So she turns it completely on its head and just changes the subject to be positive and optimistic again. So that’s a little jarring sometimes.”
Before she started working with Fox, Koteles had already worked on the role with other directors – something she said Fox was very respectful of.
“What he brings to it is the fine tuning,” she said. “Each person that you work with brings a little something more.”
Fox described his role as more of “enhancing the show around her as opposed to directing.”
“When you have an actress like Eileen, she’s so flexible and she’s so thoughtful,” Fox said. “She reads behind the lines to understand this eldery Jewish woman who wanted to get ahead. That made it very easy.”
Ferko, Koteles, and Fox all view Westheimer’s story as something that modern audiences should experience.
“I would love for younger people to come see this show,” Koteles said. “It talks about Planned Parenthood, contraception, the women in Harlem, how they had no control over their lives. That’s what really catapulted her into this, is that women should have control over these things. Love and sex and relationships, it’s such an important part of all of us.”
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” will run at Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs on Nov. 13 and 20 at 4 p.m., Nov. 17 at 7 p.m., and Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online.