Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The setting of the play is 1997 in Ruth's Washington Heights, New York, apartment. It's two months since her husband Fred passed away, and Ruth is packing up her apartment to move across town. Throughout the course of the play Westheimer will talk directly to the audience, as she says "it's much better than talking to myself," and receive phone calls from her son and daughter who question her decision to move so close after the death of her beloved husband. Over the 90-minute play we will also get the story of her life which details how she became the famous sex therapist.
Westheimer's story is fascinating. She was born as Karola Siegel, but her name was later changed once she was moved to Switzerland at age ten after her father had been moved to a work camp and Jewish families were scrambling to get their children out of the country. During the Holocaust both of her parents were killed in the concentration camps. She was trained as a sniper for the underground army in Palestine but was wounded by shrapnel and unable to walk for months. She was also married three times and came with husband number two to America, where she found new opportunities. These included the ability to get her doctorate degree, which was her lifelong dream. A job doing survey work in Harlem for Planned Parenthood is what set her on track to do sexual therapy work.
St. Germain never seems to sugar-coat the struggles that Westheimer went through, and his dialogue squarely presents her as the warm and witty person we know from her many TV appearances. His focus is smartly on the universal story of survival and the fulfilling of one's dreams. However, there are a few hiccups in the play. For the first hour, almost every time the play brings up anything about the Holocaust or any very serious topic there are phone calls that Ruth receives or distractions that switch the focus. While Ruth's chipper personality makes it seem like she is trying her best to always be upbeat and not let her past keep her down, the interruptions are a bit distracting at times. However, the end of the play does include a reflective moment about how impactful, and always present, the Holocaust is to her, which makes up for many of these earlier inconsistencies in tone.
With the exception that she looks much younger than the age of 69 that Ruth is at the time of the play, Jane Ridley is lovely as Ruth. She has the famous accent down almost perfectly and infuses the character with the sense of passion and personality that made Ruth famous. She has a warm connection with the audience and her strong comic timing is equally matched by her keen dramatic abilities.
Ridley has played this part before, at a production at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, and the direction and creative elements for that production are the ones being used for the Herberger run. Matt Silva's direction (based on the original staging and direction by Jere Hodgin) is intimate and personable, giving the comical and dramatic moments resonance without being too forced or allowing Ridley's performance to cross into caricature. The use of photos and music clips throughout the show give the audience visual and audial ways to connect with the people and places in Westheimer's life.
In the play, Dr. Ruth mentions that the brain is the most important organ when it comes to sex. Becoming Dr. Ruth uses that same organ to make us laugh, connect, and most importantly "feel" for the amazing journey this woman took and the heartbreaking experiences she had that ultimately made her into the woman that she became.
Becoming Dr. Ruth runs through February 28th, 2016, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling 602-252-8497 or at herbergertheater.org.
Written by Mark St. Germain