Dr. Ruth. Nearly everybody knows her iconic look, sound and effervescent spirit. Little did we know, however, about the marriages that didn’t work, early professional hardships, experience working in a kibbutz in Jerusalem, and unspeakable loss. Some of us at a certain age can’t help but grin at the memories of our first encounters with this grinning gnome of a woman easily talking about all aspects of sexuality.
That was before “Our Bodies Ourselves” and way before Vagina Monologues. Where did she come from? How did she reach the status of America’s favorite sex therapist? Becoming Dr. Ruth gives a glimpse of this extraordinary personality who kept reinventing herself no matter what hand grenades life tossed her way.
Orphaned by the Holocaust, the play describes a 10-year old waving goodbye to her family to board the “Kinder Transport” bound for Switzerland, a short-lived effort to save Jewish children. The hardships kept coming but she persevered the depravity and punishing conditions to set her sights on education and eventually on America where, like a chameleon, she made herself fit wherever she could. No one seems more surprised by where she ended up than she, part of her indomitable spirit.
One-person shows are tricky. The scenes have to unfold with just enough tension to keep us ready to explore the next step. Mark St. Germain’s nimble script does justice to the rich material of Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer’s life experiences. And Naomi Jacobson is exquisite as the legendary woman, down to the raised arched eyebrows, jaunty pacing, and exuberant spirit that we slowly find out covers unspeakable heartbreak. Dr. Ruth was never without her winning smile and chuckle that Jacobson delivers as real and genuine. Jacobson’s artistry shows between the beats as well, when Dr. Ruth shares the harsh reality of her life, and then mentally deals with everything so subtly. It’s a masterclass performance.
Jacobson’s Ruth is most vulnerable balancing and climbing over mountains of packing boxes, pausing to share painful memories, plop down and energetically pivot to new messages. Thankfully the well known DC actress took on this project, her first solo show, with love because it’s a far stretch to think anybody else in town could do it as effectively. There are moments when Jacobson holds two or even three sentiments in hand, excavating Ruth’s difficult memories while also cherishing them, then screeching forward to appreciate what was in front of her. Jacobson is truly a wonder.
The pictures of Ruth’s beloved family are projected across the backdrop of boxes, of a mother who barely smiled and a grandmother who lovingly made up for it. Dr. Ruth fills in family stories including her father’s optimism that everything would be alright. As the growing horror surrounded them, her family’s admonition was to keep smiling, no matter what. And she did.
Is there anything that Holly Twyford cannot do? She’s still getting accolades from her musical debut in A Little Night Music at Signature Theatre, singing one of the most challenging songs in musical theater. Here, she’s adding another directing credit to her enormous repertoire and her efforts absolutely shine. She makes every bit count, the movements are just right, the mannerisms, as are those urgent quiet moments between the text. Something is really happening when the character is pondering, wondering how/if she will unearth yet another difficult memory.
Becoming Dr. Ruth
closes March 18, 2018
Details and tickets
I’ve followed Mark St. Germain’s scripts over the years and his characteristic dynamic character developments within theatrical moments are thoughtfully rendered here. A key theme is Ruth’s tendency to vacate, scoot, vamoose when things get uncomfortable. Ruth defensively protests to her daughter on the telephone, denying vehemently that she’s running away from anything, she just needs a break, a change. And then we see the cascade of changes she’s made in her life and quietly start to wonder—what really is the difference between seeking change and running away? St. Germain’s script keeps you wondering and pondering to the very end.
Becoming Dr. Ruth is a job well done by all — the 90 minutes nearly fly by filled with lessons delivered with humor and a twinkling assurance that with hope and optimism, everything will indeed, be okay.
Becoming Dr. Ruth by Mark St. Germain . Starring Naomi Jacobson . Director: Holly Twyford . Scenic Design: Paige Hathaway . Costume Design: Robert Croghan . Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills . Sound Design: Kenny Neal . Projection Design: Sarah Tundermann . Production Stage Manager: Becky Reed . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.