BWW Review: BECOMING DR. RUTH: Rising From The Ashes to Washington Heights
Becoming Dr. Ruth
Written by Mark St. Germain, Directed by Stephen Nachamie; Scenic Designer, Jeffrey Petersen; Costume Coordinator, Penney Pinette; Lighting Designer, Aja Jackson; Projections Designer, Johnathan Carr; Stage Manager, Rachel Sturm; Props Master, Kaitlyn Burke; Recordings, Dewey Dellay
CAST: Anne O'Sullivan
Ruth K. Westheimer, German-American sex therapist, media personality, and author, became part of the country's cultural fabric in 1980 when she was featured on a 15-minute radio program, "Sexually Speaking," on WYNY-FM in New York City. Nationwide syndication followed, as did numerous television appearances, and Dr. Ruth was ubiquitous on the airwaves for the next two decades. The diminutive survivor of the Nazi Holocaust is still going strong, approaching her 91st birthday, and stands tall as an example of one who rose from the ashes to reinvent herself and make the world a better place.
New Repertory Theatre presents Becoming Dr. Ruth, Mark St. Germain's (Freud's Last Session) biographical comedy that tells you everything you didn't even know you wanted to know about Dr. Ruth, but were glad the playwright asked. Set in her Washington Heights, NY, apartment with a panoramic view overlooking the Hudson River, the play introduces us to the 69-year old Westheimer in the throes of moving after thirty years in the location. Surrounded by an array of boxes and clutter, the conceit provides a plethora of talking points as she unearths items that serve as important markers in her life story.
A must in any solo stage performance is for the artist to connect with the audience, and Anne O'Sullivan reaches through the fourth wall to grab our attention with warmth and Ruth's indomitable joie de vivre. She treats us like guests in her living room, speaking directly to us as her scene partners, if you will. An occasional phone call gives her the opportunity to talk with other, unseen characters - her children, friends, and colleagues - and she reminisces a great deal about lost family members, virtually bringing them into the room with photos and projections. They come alive in her narrative, expressing joys and sorrows, but always with a genuine appreciation for all that she has experienced in life.
St. Germain's achievement is in weaving the tale to include the horrific, the mundane, and the sublime, to formulate a portrait of a woman who is so much more than we could know back in the day when she established her claim to fame as a sex therapist. After fleeing Germany as a child, she went to Switzerland, to Israel, to France, and finally to America. Along the way, she married and divorced a couple of times, had two children, became educated, and, arguably, became a national treasure. Director Stephen Nachamie's staging, with the design team of Jeffrey Petersen (scenic), Aja Jackson (lighting), Johnathan Carr (projections), costume coordinator Penney Pinette, Kaitlyn Burke (props master), and Dewey Dellay (recordings), transforms the set effectively into a museum or archive of Ruth's past. Dr. Ruth was a pioneer in many ways, and O'Sullivan is the ideal docent to share her history with us.
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (Anne O' Sullivan)