There are few things as impressive as the charisma, talent and energy it takes to pull off a one-person show. Actress Naomi Jacobson achieves all three in “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” a one-woman show that artfully and adeptly bottles the spirit of its incredible subject. Rolling through Village Theatre with dates in Issaquah followed by Everett, the 90-minute production about a public figure you thought you knew is just the stage sorcery audiences may be yearning for during these long, dark winter months.
Touching, riveting and empowering, the show by Mark St. Germain is so much more than a Wikipedia overview of the radio therapist and “sexpert”, telling her life in a dazzling showcase of storytelling at its finest. Karola Ruth Westheimer has quite a story to tell.
Small, but mighty
Set nowhere and everywhere, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” stars Jacobson as the titular lady. It’s 1997, two months after the passing of her third (and, by her account, “real”) husband Fred. Karola Ruth Westheimer is preparing to move from her apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, where she raised her two children and developed her notorious career. White boxes of all sizes cover the stage. As she packs things into them, she begins emotionally unpack each innocuous item’s sentimental value.
The boxes also hide miniature replicas of the various locations that have defined her life, beginning in Germany, where Karola Ruth Siegel was born in 1928. Raised Jewish during the ugly time in history when being such was reason enough to be murdered, Karola escaped Germany for Switzerland when she was ten years old, thanks to the sacrifice and love of her family. Orphaned, she worked there for several years as the war raged on, acting as a glorified servant to the host family alongside her fellow Jewish refugees.
When the war ended, she moved to British-controlled Mandatory Palestine, where she began using her middle name, Ruth. Though she grew to be just 4 foot 7 inches tall, she trained as a sniper for the Jewish Zionist paramilitary organization until she was wounded in action by an exploding shell. Following months of recovery, Ruth moved west to France, where she studied psychology. At just 28, she immigrated to the United States, and her life opened up in ways she never could have imagined.
Let’s talk about sex…a bit
Ruth eventually received a Doctor of Education degree in Family-Life Studies and trained as a sex therapist. She worked tirelessly for years conducting research, teaching, and treating patients. In 1980, at 52 years of age, her career skyrocketed, leaving the earth behind thanks to her infamous radio show, Sexually Speaking, where she gave callers advice on a broad range of topics within the umbrella of sex education. It was not just her candid responses but her ephemeral charm and humor that won over audiences and granted her instant fame.
Her show and its popularity are the main reasons St. Germain felt Ruth’s life earned its own stage production, but the title reveals the play’s primary focus. It is more interested in the “Becoming” part than the fully realized celebrity of “Dr. Ruth.” The sex talk is very minimally portrayed, and this is for the viewers’ benefit because her life before celebrity was wilder than fiction.
Only the last little bit is dedicated to her career as a sex expert. The play does reiterate some tidbits of advice, and of course, it divulges a little of her own sexual history. But “Becoming Dr. Ruth” is a testament to how full-bodied and diverse a life can be and a reminder to celebrate the good that comes throughout the journey.
Know before you go:
Since 2018, Jacobson has performed this one-woman show several times, including two runs in Washington D.C. and one in Cleveland. She nails the role of Dr. Ruth down to her accent and physicality. There is no lull in her energy and in her ability to tell this compelling, brilliant and utterly devastating story. Jacobson wrote a piece for the show’s Playbill about why she agreed to reprise the role, which you can also read here.
It should come as a shock to no one that “Becoming Dr. Ruth” features sexually explicit content. Viewer discretion is, of course, advised, however such discussions (of specific private parts and consensual mature acts indecent for the very young) are brief. A majority of the play focuses on Dr. Ruth’s extraordinary life, and several moments of “awkward” sex talk should not deter parents from bringing their teenage children.
There is quite some time spent discussing World War II, the Nazi party and the Holocaust. At one point, a projected swastika dramatically fills the stage as Dr. Ruth discusses the horrors inflicted on the Jewish people. Later in the play, she notes the number of gas chambers, torture rooms, and other purely evil atrocities concocted by the Nazi party. There is also some mention of gun use during her stint in the Haganah before she was injured in combat.
There may be wet eyes and clogged throats when the discussion turns to the realization that her mother, father, and grandmother did not survive the concentration camps, which Ruth herself narrowly avoided. Still, the nearly unimaginable horrors she witnessed are balanced by the levity and joy of her enviable optimism and enchanting disposition. However, those sensitive to or easily triggered by such tragic real-life events should be warned.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” will play at Issaquah’s Francis J. Gaudette Theatre from January 16 through February 18 and the Everett Performing Arts Center from February 24 through March 17. The show runs for approximately one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.