Review: “Becoming Dr. Ruth" at the Cape Fear Playhouse
OnStage North Carolina Critic
Dr. Ruth Westheimer became a cultural icon in 1980 with her radio show, “Sexually Speaking.” Broadcast from NYC for fifteen minutes on Sundays at midnight, it was extremely risqué and risky, as its time slot indicated. What mitigated the potentially off-putting notion of a 52-year-old woman ̶ or any woman ̶ discussing all things sexual was that the woman in question was an elfin, endlessly enthusiastic grandmotherly type with a disarming polyglot accent (she’s fluent in four languages). Dr. Ruth was a non-threatening woman to whom both sexes could relate, without embarrassment at the mere mention of a penis. Her buoyant, impish personality made her a ubiquitous presence on television talk shows. She entered the national conversation.
Courtesy of Big Dawg Productions and Panache Theatrical Productions, Mark St. Germain’s indispensable one-woman play, “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” guides us through a life that is, by turns, surprising, horrifying, heartbreaking and transcendent. Set in 1997 in the Washington Heights apartment she has shared with her recently deceased husband for 36 years, the good doctor, now on the brink of 70, is packing up her belongings and moving on. (As an immigrant herself, one cannot help but draw stark comparisons to current events.) She is also, of course, reminiscing and we are the richer for it. The convincing scenario evolves as a family saga, a Holocaust drama and an exploration of 20th-century Jewish identity.
Karola Ruth Siegel was born in 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany. After her father was captured by the Nazis, the 11-year-old girl was sent to Switzerland via the Kindertransport, an underground rail operation that carried thousands of Jewish children to safety in foreign lands on the eve of WWII. Letters from her parents stopped arriving at the orphanage where she was ensconced two years later; they were most likely exterminated at the Auschwitz concentration camp. At the age of 17, Karola emigrated to join the fighting Haganah in Jerusalem where, due to her height (4 foot 7 inches) she was trained as a scout and sniper. Severely wounded in action during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, it was several months before she was able to walk again. Her subsequent education in both France and NYC, where she arrived as a single mother at the age of 28, resulted in many distinguished degrees and included formative training with pioneer sex therapist, Helen Singer Kaplan.
Mr. St. Germain has trod the historical fiction path before, with award-winning plays elucidating the likes of Sigmund Freud (“Freud’s Last Stand”), F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway (“Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah”), and Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Warren Harding (“Camping with Henry and Tom”). As it happens, Dr. Ruth’s life journey is eminently, if unexpectedly, deserving of the dramatic platform afforded those aforementioned pioneers.
The playwright wisely eschews the chronological “…and then I…” format which has dogged so many similar enterprises. As the titular character, Holli Saperstein expertly navigates the stream of consciousness jumps in time, and in tone, under Steve Vernon’s astute direction. Whether Ms. Saperstein bears any physical resemblance to the character she is portraying matters not a whit. She has found the truthful center through which this extraordinary woman tells her compelling, and entertaining, story.
The nondescript set design by Jeff Loy and Mr. Vernon features over-sized furniture, straining to employ a forced perspective, perhaps hoping to make the leading lady look shorter? This technique, however ill-advised, might work in a larger venue but when you’re sitting two feet from the actor and two yards from the scenery, such intimate confines render the unnecessary concept moot. An unattractively bare wall upstage insinuates, “Projections to come!” They do come, sporadically, landing without much emotional impact. Nick Fener has lighted the production thoughtfully, with one especially nifty trick up his sleeve.
Mr. Vernon’s staging is rather pedestrian, the engaging Ms. Saperstein left to just wander around. With the many packing boxes strewn about the room, I would like to have seen Ruth wrapping a treasured family photo as she spoke of her parents, packing it away with other meaningful possessions for another time and place. While the production lacks activity, Mr. Vernon and Ms. Saperstein admirably steer away from unearned pathos during the more destressing stretches of a life that has had more than its fair share of anguish.
But Dr. Ruth is not one to wallow, having maintained her innate strength and unique joie de vivre through the decades. Today, at the age of 88, she still resides in the old neighborhood in Washington Heights.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” runs through August 29th at Cape Fear Playhouse in Wilmington, NC.