Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a beloved ’80s icon. The tiny, yet big-opinioned sex therapist was a fixture on late night talk shows and the radio throughout the decade, and even fronted several of her own shows dealing with sex and relationships in a candid and funny manner.
While many in today’s over-40 crowd can easily picture her and hear her unmistakable voice utter her catchphrase, “get some,” there’s a lot about Westheimer that most don’t know, starting with her real name— Karola Ruth Siegel.
The German-born, Jewish immigrant’s history includes fleeing the Nazis in the Kindertransport and joining the Haganah in Jerusalem as a scout and sniper before eventually coming to America as a single mom.
All of this is explored in Mark St. Germain’s Becoming Dr. Ruth, which was a hit Off Broadway in 2013.
Theater J’s artistic director Adam Immerwahr had intentions of doing the show this season, but wouldn’t commit unless he got the actress he wanted for the part— Naomi Jacobson. With 15 Helen Hayes noms and three wins to her credit, the D.C.-based actress, he believed, was perfect for the part.
“I had this nice invitation from Adam and he said he wanted me for the role and so I read it, we talked at length about the pros and cons and directors, and I thought a lot about it,” Jacobson says. “I had never done a one-women show before so that was very interesting to me, and I decided to say yes.”
There was a deeper reason she agreed to do the part, as well.
“I don’t know my great-grandparents at all—who they are, where they lived, what they did, even their names,” Jacobson says. “Even though Dr. Ruth’s story isn’t my family’s story, there’s something about telling her story that I thought might be healing in a way. My grandparents were the generation where you just don’t talk about it. You make your way in the new world and don’t talk about the past. That was the clincher for me. I can’t tell my grandparent’s story but I can tell her story.”
Like most people, Jacobson knew the “Hollywood” stuff about Dr. Ruth, but had no clue about any of her gloomy past, so she started watching old interviews on YouTube and reading some of the books Westheimer penned.
“The most important things I read were her biography and Heavenly Sex, a book about Jewish traditions and sexuality in the bible,” Jacobson says. “These really revealed a lot about her.”
Her plan was not so much to do a perfect imitation but to honor Dr. Ruth and her legacy with a representation of who she was and what she believes.
Becoming Dr. Ruth
Produced by Theater J
February 21 – March 18, 2018
Details and tickets
“I, of course, worked on her accent, dialect and some of her vocal tics and mannerisms, but I didn’t want to just do an impersonation, I wanted to get to an essence. I am not her, and it would wear out really quickly,” she says. “I’ve looked at how she uses her hands and I’ve laid in some of them, but other than a few key places, I’m not worrying about it too much. I’m too tall for one thing. You’ll look at me and know I’m not her. I’m doing the best I can, but it’s my instrument so it’s never going to be exact.”
One of Jacobson’s conditions for doing the play was that she didn’t want the staging to utilize a realistic set due to the theatricality of the show.
“It seems to me, the journey is an internal one, and I just wanted an abstract set so we’re not in her apartment, but we can live in the theatrical environment, inside her mind,” she says. “The play is so theatrical, there’s talking to the audience and things that wouldn’t have happened in 1997 that she references.”
Doing a one-woman show has been a learning curve for the veteran actress, she admits.
“You never get a break. I even said to Holly [director Holly Twyford] today to give someone else a few notes. You have to be at attention all the time and there is no letting down,” Jacobson says. “A five-hour rehearsal block is just you and quite tiring. It takes every part of your being—your emotional skills and analytical ability and it’s a physical marathon.”
But she’s glad she’s doing it and knows she’ll be putting her best foot forward every day and learning each and every night. And while she hasn’t talked to Dr. Ruth personally, she did get a message from her through associate producer Kevin Place, and says it was something “very sweet.”
“All I can do is keep plodding forward with what I have to work on and I won’t finish until closing night. It’s a perfect vessel for her story. Dr. Ruth at every turn in her life had to believe in herself and trust she had value for the world,” Jacobson says. “I’m not going to read any reviews or let anyone’s opinion encroach on my artistic process and I will continue to work on it until we close.”
She understands that younger people probably have no idea who Westheimer is, but she sees the show as a big valentine for adults.
“I hope people will be inspired by her story, which shows we are all resilient and can overcome obstacles and hardship,” Jacobson says. “When I compare my life to Dr. Ruth’s, boy do I have nothing to complain about. You need to keep choosing to take responsibility and make the world a better place if you can. That’s what she did. She never gave up and kept moving forward and trusting there was a place for her in the world.”