Mark St. Germain’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth” tells the story of Dr. Ruth Westheimer in a one-woman play at Florida Studio Theatre. It isn’t the story you’d expect. She’s not the person you’d expect her to be.
In case you missed the good doctor’s show (or grew up after it ended), “Dr. Ruth” was the nom de media of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex therapist, author and media personality. At the dawn of the 1980s, Dr. Ruth dispensed amorous advice over the radio with her nationally syndicated “Sexually Speaking” — which turned into a nationally syndicated TV show by 1982. She spoke in an indeterminate European accent — appropriately enough, like a bubbly, female Freud in a perpetual good mood.
A play about this woman might resemble Monty Python’s “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” routine. But St. Germain’s play doesn’t. Her sex advice is there, but just a few nuggets. This isn’t a prurient giggle. It’s an improbable survivor’s story.
Dr. Ruth (originally Karola Siegel) was born in 1928 to Orthodox Jewish parents in Germany. In 1933, her country became Nazi Germany. The murderous violence of Kristallnacht — and the sight of SS officers taking her father to a “labor camp” — seared her memory. But the Nazis didn’t erase her memory. She became one of the few lucky Jewish children accepted by Switzerland. There, she was treated like a second-class citizen but survived the war. Her parents died in the Holocaust.
Following the war, she moved to a kibbutz in what would soon be Israel and became a sniper for the Haganah. (Yes, Dr. Ruth was a sniper!) She went on to earn a psychology degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, pursue her doctorate in New York City (and had her thesis shot down) and become an organizer of Planned Parenthood’s sex education volunteers. Knowing that she’d found her life’s calling, she achieved a master’s degree in sociology and completed her post-doctorate work in human sexuality (successfully, this time) with Helen Singer Kaplan, the pioneering sex therapist. Along the way, she found time to have three husbands and two kids. Did she have time to do a radio show as well? In 1980, someone asked. As we all know, her answer was yes.
Susan Greenhill’s endearing one-woman performance makes us believe in the relentlessly positive personality behind Dr. Ruth’s media image. Surprise, surprise, it’s not just an image. It’s not a put-on. She really is that positive.
And if anyone has a right to be negative, Dr. Ruth does. She’s diminutive — only 4 feet, 7 inches tall. A psychotic regime murdered her family. A bomb nearly murdered her during the Israeli War for Independence. She’s had her share of heartbreaks and reversals.
In the time frame of the play, she’s recently had a bad one — the death of her husband, Manfred “Fred” Westheimer, in 1997. We see Dr. Ruth wrapping up a lifetime of chotchkes in her cramped New York City apartment, and she suddenly notices an audience of people watching her.
“Great,” she says. “I love to go to the theater. Now the theater comes to me!”
She exchanges banter and pretzels with the audience and takes a personal stand against un-silenced cell phones. But nobody silences her. Every picture and possession she wraps up tells a story. (An old gag, but it works here.) A Bobo doll best symbolizes her: Knock it down, it always bounces back up. That’s Dr. Ruth’s style.
Greenhill flawlessly expresses that exuberant, wise-cracking style, under Kate Alexander’s easygoing direction. The conceit is that all these memories and associations are naturally occurring to Dr. Ruth — in an off-the-cuff conversation with a few hundred people who just dropped in. Quite a conceit, but you buy it with a smile.
The person behind the personality is what counts.
In St. Germain’s play, Dr. Ruth’s yes echoes the life-affirming yes of Molly Bloom at the end of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” To everyone’s favorite media sex therapist, saying yes to sex is saying yes to life. Her positive attitude is a battle cry against life’s enemies.
That cry whispers in every line of this warm-hearted, humanist play. But one scene says it loud and clear …
Dr. Ruth shows us a photo of her three grandchildren.
“These are my grandchildren,” she says with defiant pride. “Hitler lost, and I won.”
IF YOU GO
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” runs through July 27, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Keating Theatre, 1247 First St., Sarasota. Call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org for more information.
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