TV sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has always been a wacky character to me. Back in the 1980s, before social media, before Sex in the City, she was the first adult I ever heard use the words “penis” and “vagina” joyfully and completely without embarrassment.
The premise of Mark St. Germain’s solo play, Becoming Dr. Ruth, which is set in Dr. Ruth’s New York apartment in 1997, is that the audience is keeping her company as she packs to move. Sometimes the phone rings and it is one of her children trying to convince her not to move for reasons that weren’t clear to me, but there is no real urgency or conflict in the 1997 reality of the play. The catharsis in this show comes from the deeper understanding of an unusual life that builds in your mind as you listen to Dr. Ruth reminisce.
Under Lori Raffel’s direction and with a little help from slides, lighting, sound effects and more, actor Diann Ryan perfectly portrays the woman that was born Karol Siegel in Germany and who was one of only 300 Jewish children allowed to flee the Nazis to Switzerland. Full disclosure: Ryan and I work at the same place for our day jobs. In real life, she has Dr. Ruth’s warm and bold sense of humor automatically. However, on the TOTS stage, everything from the R-rolling accent to the bustling storytelling style to the complexity of a survivor’s background is consistently, fascinatingly Dr. Ruth’s thanks to Ryan’s expert acting skills.
Becoming Dr. Ruth incorporates the famous wackiness but it is ultimately more moving than humorous. At the end of the day, Dr. Ruth’s commitment to sex-as-mitzvah education is almost the least interesting thing about her. But she still makes me want to “Have good sex!” into my nineties.