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Becoming Dr. Ruth
by Mark St. Germain
Directed by Jerry McAdams
New Jewish Theatre
December 7, 2015

Susie Wall Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a person who is known in popular culture mostly for two things–her name and her frank and enthusiastic talk about sex.  Few people know much about her other than her job, I would imagine.  Mark St. Germain’s one-woman play, Becoming Dr. Ruth seeks to tell us more about the woman behind the name, and New Jewish Theatre’s production starring Susie Wall is an engaging, informatative anchored by a very strong leading performance.

Personally, my impressions of Dr. Ruth before seeing this play came more from parodies of her on old 80’s episodes of Saturday Night Live than from the woman herself, so it’s somewhat surprising to me to learn of her eventful and sometimes adventurous life.  St. Germain’s script is fairly pedestrian, setting Dr. Ruth in her apartment preparing for a move, whereupon she suddenly notices she has an audience and begins telling stories. As she travels around the room picking up items to pack, she’s prompted to remember her childhood in Germany, and her beloved parents and grandmother. She tells how she was sent to Switzerland as a child to avoid the Holocaust, and how she still wonders exactly what happened to her parents. We learn of her children, both of whom she talks to on the phone during the play, and of her three marriages–most notably her third and happiest, to Manfred “Fred” Westheimer. We learn of her involvement in the early years of the nation of Israel, and of her coming to America, getting her advanced degrees and eventually becoming a sex therapist, radio show host and pop culture figure.  She’s presented as a personable, resilient woman, who has survived great tragedy and hardship and found meaning and made a name for herself in her chosen profession.  It’s an interesting and occasionally fascinating story, but the real strength in this production is in the performance rather than the script.

Susie Wall is obviously taller than the real Dr. Ruth, and the red outfit she wears (provided by costumer designer Teresa Doggett) and hairstyle call to mind Nancy Reagan as much as the famous sex therapist, although Wall brings so much vibrancy and personality to the role that it’s easy to forget she doesn’t really look like the real person. Wall is a delightful mixture of charm, audacity, and empathy as this surprisingly complex woman who has become an unlikely cultural icon.  We see the tragedy of losing her parents and her whole childhood way of life through her eyes, and we see how her childhood experiences have informed the woman she has become. Although the script is predictable, Wall brings a sense of spontaneity and energy to it, and she’s a joy to watch.  As she moves around throughout Cristie Johnston’s well-appointed and sufficiently cluttered apartment set, we get to know Dr. Ruth as a person because of Wall’s fully invested performance. The technical elements-as is always the case at NJT–are also top-notch and add to the overall experience. In addition to the set and costumes, Michael B. Perkins’s projections are also notable, and contribute to illustrating Dr. Ruth’s reflections.

Dr. Ruth has led a long and extremely full life, and this show manages to let us get to know her not just as a cultural figure, but as a survivor.  Her persistence and warmth of personality are clearly evident, and Wall’s portrayal of her is the most important part of this show.  Even if you don’t know much about Dr. Ruth, this show is worth seeing for Wall’s excellent performance.

Susie Wall Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

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