Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company/Becoming Dr. Ruth, written by Mark St. Germain, directed by David Eisner, Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Apr. 30 to May 16. Tickets available at hgjewishtheatre.com
Becoming Dr. Ruth is an utterly engaging theatrical experience that is worth the schlep up to North York. This one-woman play tells the life story of celebrity sex therapist and prolific author, Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, and if actor Linda Kash isn’t nominated for a Dora Award, there is no justice.
American playwright Mark St. Germain’s 2013 script is not rocket science. It follows a very conventional biographical format with no surprises. His strength, however, lies in capturing the exuberant effervescence, self-deprecating humour and beguiling charm of an extraordinary woman, all brought to life by the captivating Kash, including Dr. Ruth’s self-proclaimed German, Hebrew, French, American accent. The ninety-minute show literally flies by like seconds.
It is 1997, and St. Germain’s premise is that Dr. Ruth is about to move across town to a new apartment. Her beloved third husband, Manfred “Freddie” Westheimer, has been dead for just two months and Dr. Ruth wants to start afresh. Her children, Miriam and Joel, keep phoning her to stop the move from Washington Heights where she has lived for most of her many years in Manhattan.
Distinguished set designer Yannik Larivée has surrounded Dr. Ruth with various sizes of packing boxes, which become chairs, desks and anything climbable as needed, and which represent the accumulated clutter of her busy life and career. Director David Eisner has cleverly stashed props in, on and around the boxes, which augment Dr. Ruth’s storytelling, particularly photographs. The boxes also function as a projection screen that depict larger images of these props. Christopher Stanton’s versatile sound design illustrates Dr. Ruth’s experiences with everything from musical interludes to the voices of her call-in radio listeners. The production is efficient and non-obtrusive, and it works, leaving Dr. Ruth front and centre.
St. Germain tells Dr. Ruth’s life in a very straightforward fashion, and it is an amazing tale. Born Karola Siegel, she was raised in an orthodox Jewish home in Frankfurt, Germany. (She became Ruth because she needed a Hebrew name in Palestine.) Because her father was taken away by the Nazis to a work camp, ten-year-old Karola was eligible to be part of the 1938 Kindertransport, where Jewish children who had lost a parent, or who were orphans, were sent out of Germany to surrounding countries. In Dr. Ruth’s case, it was Switzerland, which probably saved her life. Kindertransport children who were sent to France, Holland and Belgium probably did not survive the Holocaust. The last letter she received from her mother and grandmother was in 1941.
As an orphaned teenager after the war, Dr. Ruth went to Palestine where she became a scout and a sniper for the Haganah, the Jewish underground army. She then went to Paris with her first husband who was studying to be a doctor, and ended up coming to New York with her second husband. These bare facts are fleshed out by St. Germain with fascinating observations by Dr. Ruth herself, who is always refreshingly candid and self-critical, particularly about the demise of her first two marriages. A major part of the Dr. Ruth story is, of course, how she became a sex therapist, and more to point, how she became a media personality, and we learn about these aspects of her life as well. The play is filled with humour, even though parts of her story are admittedly grim.
Keeping company with Dr. Ruth is a warm, fuzzy experience for the audience, and Kash sweeps us up in the embrace of Dr. Ruth’s undeniable warmth, keen intelligence, and infectious giggle. It is the tale of one woman’s triumph over adversity, and as Dr. Ruth tells us at the end, when she looks at her four beloved grandchildren, she knows that Hitler lost, and that she won.