Review: THE TRUTH ABOUT WINNIE RUTH JUDD at The Phoenix Theatre Company

The production runs until March 24, 2024.

By: Feb. 21, 2024
Review: THE TRUTH ABOUT WINNIE RUTH JUDD at The Phoenix Theatre Company
Get Access To Every Broadway Story

Unlock access to every one of the hundreds of articles published daily on BroadwayWorld by logging in with one click.

Existing user? Just click login.

Review: THE TRUTH ABOUT WINNIE RUTH JUDD at The Phoenix Theatre Company
The cast of Winnie Ruth Judd, L to R, Louis Farber, Ron May, Cathy Dresbach, Jon Gentry, Emily Mohney, Shad Willingham, Megan Holcomb (in shadow), and Mitchell Glass - photo credit: Brennan Russell

In an era captivated by the allure of true crime narratives and intrigue of real-life mysteries, The Truth About Winnie Ruth Judd takes the Hardes stage at The Phoenix Theatre Company. Promising to tell the tale of one of Arizona's most notorious murder cases, this production beckons enthusiasts of the genre to delve into the web of deceit and scandal surrounding Winnie Ruth Judd's story. For those anticipating a straightforward retelling worthy of true crime aficionados, attending this show might be a disappointment, as it veers away from traditional documentary-style narratives with the authors offering a perspective on how the crime was viewed at the time.

In 1931, Winnie Ruth Judd became infamous as the Trunk Murderess when the dismembered bodies of two women, Agnes Anne LeRoi and Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson (her two best friends), were discovered packed in trunks at a train station in Los Angeles. When her story of drugs, adultery, and murder hit the news, Judd was immediately catapulted into a sensational spectacle, captivating the nation with her case and its lurid details and unresolved mysteries. Despite her eventual conviction, questions lingered about her guilt and motives, adding layers of ambiguity that authors Cathy Dresbach and Ben Tyler aim to counter by presenting their unique version based on local historical research.

The story of Judd is introduced to the audience through her flashbacks and the bulk of what came after is told through the lens of a Phoenix station KOY's radio reenactment show. In essence, Judd (Megan Holcomb) comes to Phoenix to make some money to aid her husband, Dr. William Judd (Ron May) who is addicted to morphine back in California. She begins an affair with Jack Halloran (Shad Willingham) and befriends LeRoi (Emily Mohney) and Samuelson (Racquel McKenzie) shortly thereafter. Soon, Judd is swept up in a world of sex, drugs, and illicit activity which coalesces into one fateful night that ends in murder. After reading about her story, Jack Williams (Louis Farber) convinces his station manager, Fred Palmer (Jon Gentry), to reenact the court trial for KOY's listeners. What follows is a reactionary account from the ensemble (played by Phoenix favorites Cathy Dresbach, Jon Gentry, Marshall Glass, Ron May, Racquel McKenzie, Emily Mohney, and Shad Willingham) that uses dark comedy to make this shocking story palatable for their 1930s audience. The play becomes more about the over-the-top spectacle of what people say about or how they react to Judd rather than the intricacies of the story itself.

There is so much that is known about Ruth (and the other characters in this story) that could give the story depth and the audience insight into motivation or life circumstances. Instead, this play within the play framing device is used to emphasize that the narrator, Judd, is a pawn, helpless to the perception of her portrayal by others. Still, nothing more than superficial information is ever really explored about Ruth, her friends, or Jack Halloran, the eventual lover of all three. So while the audience is left wanting to know more about Judd and her case, most of it is glossed over, making it seem like her headline is just the means to an end to get to the reenactment.

But maybe that was the authors' intention all along. Holcomb, playing Judd, comes across as a hapless, sad narrator and McKenzie and Mohney aptly flounce around as “party girls” Annie and Sammy, while Willingham oozes sleaze after his appearance as the smarmy Halloran. The audience sees caricatures and doesn't have that connection to Judd and the others like they should. As if to illustrate this point, the ensemble all come to life as they adeptly move from character to character in KOY’s reenactment. There is no doubt of their artistry and comedic timing. Dresbach, Glass, Mohney, and McKenzie all have standout moments leaving the audience laughing while May gives us sincerity and warmth with his portrayal of Dr. William Judd, and Judd's various attorneys. The play seems to espouse the idea that it is the ones who react to these events that are often more interesting than the people reportedly living it.

Under the direction of Matthew Wiener, this production continues the bold approach that bridges the gap between past and present. Wiener reframes the narrative through a modern-day lens, infusing the characters with a contemporary sensibility while retaining the historical essence of the story. This direction (along with the writing) invites audiences to confront the enduring allure of scandal and mystery that continues to captivate us in the present day in a very tongue-in-cheek manner rather than a gruesome retelling of a murder story. Each element of production, from the scenic design by Douglas Clarke to costumes by Connie Furr, down to seating, gives the audience an immersive experience that revels in the spectacle and flash of crime and controversy. 

The Truth About Winnie Ruth Judd is playing at The Phoenix Theatre Company until March 24, 2024, and is a play vis-à-vis a society rocked with the exploits of the titular character. It is an entertaining way to dip a toe into true crime without getting into horrific details. What it lacked in depth and detail, it gave back in talent. 

The Phoenix Theatre Company is not only the largest professional regional theatre company in the state, with nearly 500 performances each year on multiple stages, but it’s also the first arts organization in Arizona and a founding member of the Central Arts District. Committed to advancing the performing arts in the Valley, The Phoenix Theatre Company's mission is to create exceptional theatrical experiences that inspire hope and understanding. For more information about our upcoming shows, outreach programs, and more, visit