Review: ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth’ at Theater J

Helmed by a trio of DC’s creative talent royalty, Theater J’s production of Becoming Dr. Ruth, penned by Mark St. Germain, goes beyond just facts and dates to become an engaging exploration of how Dr. Ruth Westheimer become what she became in the 1980s – America’s favorite sex therapist.

Naomi Jacobson as Dr. Ruth. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Naomi Jacobson as Dr. Ruth. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The trio of creative talent taking the one-actor biographical drama of the much-loved Dr. Ruth Westheimer into a lucid, heartfelt evening of theater includes actor Naomi Jacobson as Dr. Ruth, director Holly Twyford, and scenic designer Paige Hathaway. Beyond its bio of the much-loved and iconic Dr. Ruth, the production on the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater stage is far from all dark drama, it has plenty of fun anecdotes and well-delivered rim-shot “Borscht Belt” humor.

Let’s begin with the marvel of Jacobson as Dr. Ruth herself. Jacobson does the nearly impossible. She inhabits the character of a feisty Dr. Ruth, making her not a stick figure, but alive and easygoing despite the trauma in the real Dr. Ruth’s life. Refreshingly, Jacobson does not try to mimic Dr. Ruth or make her performance into a kind of theatrical stand-up comedy routine. Even more difficult, I would think, is that Jacobson held the audience to her as Dr. Ruth; an audience on the night I saw the production that likely knew Dr. Ruth for quite some time and would not want anyone to mess with their personal memories and recollections.

Also on DC Metro Theater Arts: “An Interview with Dr. Ruth, Whose Story Became ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth’ at Theater J,” by Ravelle Brickman

So, who is the real Dr. Ruth – the purveyor of sexual education and guidance in the gritty 1980s starting in New York City just as the City was about to fall into near bankruptcy? Dr. Ruth had lived through lots worse. As I learned in Becoming Dr. Ruth, she lived an early life that few of us could ever fathom. Born as Karola Ruth Siegel in 1928 in Germany, she was a Holocaust survivor whose entire family was lost except for her. She then moved to Palestine and became a Haganah fighter during 1947-48. She was seriously injured in the ensuing war as the British mandate over Palestine ended and the war for Israel’s independence ensued. She was a married woman unable to speak English who moved to America in the early 1950s and then found herself a single mom with a dream to fulfill. She earned advanced degrees, had crappy jobs, and then two more marriages.

Then came an unexpected break that led her to become an “instant” celebrity of a talk radio show host; talking about the then unthinkable – sexuality – over the phone with anonymous callers seeking out her guidance. What a life indeed.

Becoming Dr. Ruth is well-helmed by director Holly Twyford. Many likely know Twyford for her fabulous acting chops. She keeps the pace of the show moving nicely, but there are times when the script can feel too much like a recitation of wiki-facts. Twyford also enlists some nifty voice-over work from a local voice most will recognize. I will leave to your recognition.

The set design centers around a whimsical stacking of white boxes of different shapes and sizes designed by scenic designer par excellence Paige Hathaway. Over the course of Becoming Dr. Ruth, they became active participants that helped Jacobson reveal Dr. Ruth. It would be unfair to say too much other than some of the boxes became a second character for Jacobson to interact with as she opens some, walks on others and teeters, reaching for things that matter. The set of plain white boxes are far from static, but bloom into breathing objects with memories.

Naomi Jacobson as Dr. Ruth. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Sound designer Kenny Neal incorporates klezmer tunes to get the audience in the mood both before and during the show. Mollie Singer does some special work as the props master. Her work is integral to the production and Dr. Ruth’s ongoing staged life. One thing I sadly must note, projections of important pictures from Dr. Ruth’s life sometimes became muddy when projected (Sarah Tundermann, projections designer) on the many white boxes.

Becoming Dr. Ruth will be a lovely night out for those who recall Dr. Ruth from their own youth, when they may have had the sound of a radio on low so their parents would not hear, or sound on high in a dorm room, or nudging a spouse or partner to try something that Dr. Ruth mentioned.

Becoming Dr. Ruth can also resonate with someone wanting a sense of how to survive the unthinkable while keeping a sense of what family, home, and community can be. And yes, for those who know that the brain is the greatest sexual organ. And for that Dr. Ruth brings a bit of ancient Jewish wisdom about sex.

Finally, for those who want to see what a theatrical team can do to enliven a script of words on a page, well now, Naomi Jacobson, Holly Twyford, Paige Hathaway and the entire creative team schooled me.

One more thing. The real Dr. Ruth is coming to DC to be interviewed for the 2018 annual Theater J benefit on March 25. Now that should be something else, don’t you think?

Running Time: About 75 minutes, with no intermission.

Becoming Dr. Ruth plays through March 18, 2018, at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.