Saturday, December 13, 2014

BECOMING DR. RUTH • New Jewish Theatre

Before Ruth Westheimer became "Dr. Ruth", she was Karola Ruth Siegel, born in Wiesenfeld, Germany to Orthodox Jews in 1928. Her petite stature, spright, thickly accented voice and honest talk about human sexuality led her to fame as a sex therapist and media personality, but the little known facts about her astonishing life make up the bulk of Mark St. Germain's one-woman play, portrayed strongly by Susie Wall.

Scenic designer Cristie Johnston's impressively cozy space welcomes us into the cluttered Washington Heights apartment of Dr. Ruth Westheimer as she packs up for a move a few months after the death of her third husband, Manfred Westheimer. She's surprised to see all of us in her living room, and invites us to keep her company while she struggles to continue packing up boxes.
Just about every trinket or photograph she picks up to wrap in newspaper reminds her of her past. Wall engagingly relates Westheimer's childhood in an orphanage in Switzerland, sent there by her mother and grandmother through kindertransport after her father was taken to a labor camp when the Nazis rose to power. There's also anecdotes about her time in Palestine where she lived on a kibbutz, her joining the Haganah where she was trained as a scout and sniper, her studies in France, and her three marriages and two children. The indomitable spirit of Dr. Ruth can't be denied, but the translation of that vivacity tends to get bogged down in the plodding rhythms of St. Germain's script, with an occasional change of pace when she's interrupted by phone calls from the movers, her children, or advice seekers. The play perks up when it builds to Dr. Ruth's 1980’s radio program, “Sexually Speaking", a call-in show where she frankly and warm-heartedly answered questions from listeners about sex, and the popularity it gained, eventually making her a household name. 

Susie Wall (Dr. Ruth).
Photo credits: John Lamb
Wall, under the direction of Jerry McAdams, gives an appealing performance and breathes life into the play where it allows, and Michael B. Perkins provides the projection design that illustrates some of Westhimer's memories with images projected onto a curtained window, with Kimberly Klearman providing the lighting design and Teresa Doggett providing the costumes.

The road that led to Dr. Ruth's fame is certainly an interesting one, but ultimately, the pace becomes mechanical, zapping the zest out of too many of the stories. It's playing until the 21st.

Susie Wall (Dr. Ruth).
Photo credits: John Lamb

Written by Mark St. Germain
Directed by Jerry McAdams
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through December 21 | tickets: $36 - $40
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, Sunday the 7th at 2pm & 7:30pm

Susie Wall* (Dr. Ruth)
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Cristie Johnston; lighting design by Kimberly Klearman; costume design by Teresa Doggett; sound and projection design by Michael B. Perkins; stage manager, Emily Clinger.

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