It’s been 40 years since sex therapist Ruth Westheimer became a celebrity. The 4’7” “Grandma Freud,” aka Dr. Ruth, who gave advice on her radio and TV shows in a sing-song European accent about orgasms and contraception, was a regular on the late night talk shows and college lecture circuit; a subject of endless sketches on Saturday Night Live and of a disco song that played in all the clubs; a partygoer who hung out with the likes of Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney. In “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” a solo play by Mark St. Germain presented on stage at the Museum of Jewish Heritage only through January 2, Tovah Feldshuh shows us the woman behind (and before) the celebrity – born Karola Ruth Siegel into an Orthodox Jewish family in Germany, where, when she was ten years old, the Nazis came to their home and took her father away.
It’s a well-told story of resilience and reinvention, which I first saw Off-Broadway eight years ago. This new production, with a different star, director and designers, has the same humor and warmth. But it now features a performance that’s one of the best of the year, and feels something close to profound.
The journey from Karola to Dr. Ruth, which began in Germany, next took her to Switzerland, where she was one of only 300 German Jewish children that that nation agreed to take in. Some half million German Jewish children were left behind – most of whom the Nazis killed. She still has the washcloth she brought with her to Switzerland, with the initials K.S. that her mother had elaborately stitched in. ‘I wish I had taken more. But I didn’t; I thought I’d be back soon.”
After the war, now a Holocaust orphan, she resettled in a kibbutz in Israel, then moved to Jerusalem, where she worked during the day as a kindergarten teacher and at night became a sniper for the Haganah, the Jewish Underground Army, as well as a messenger, “because there was less of me to shoot at.” From there, she moved (with her first of three husbands) to Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne, She emigrated (with her second husband) to New York, where she eventually got a PhD. In education from Columbia. This was after a job interviewing women in Harlem for Planned Parenthood made her realize she wanted to teach sex education. “There were two conditions, however, I would not treat. Sadomasochism, because a therapist has to visualize and I don’t want to. And bestiality. I am not a veterinarian.”.
She is telling all this in 1997 to the audience as if we are guests in her home, an impressively cluttered apartment in Washington Heights (kudos to set designer Andrew Diaz ), which she shared with her third husband, Fred, a marriage that lasted almost four decades, until his death two months earlier. Her view out the window, of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge, becomes a screen for projections of the people and places over the course of her life.
The monologue is occasionally interrupted by phone calls. It is moving day, and among the calls is one is from her moving man, asks for her advice. “Stop right there, Mike….why do you think your penis is small?…Love your penis.” Later, she re-enacts the questions and answers from her radio program, with the questions coming from recorded voices.
The exchanges are funny, not least because, as Dr. Ruth observes, here is “this minute middle aged woman” talking bluntly about sex (“And my accent helped.”) But Feldshuh is able to avoid caricature – helped, I think, by the real Dr. Ruth, who has always been self-aware enough to have a sense of humor about herself. As she says in the play: “A lesson learned with humor is a lesson remembered.” It’s hard even to begrudge Dr. Ruth’s penchant for self-promotion because she takes such unusually open enjoyment from her celebrity. “I was famous and I loved it! Who wouldn’t?” (Can you imagine George Clooney or Bob Dylan saying that?)
Feldshuh is able to keep it light when it should be. She is also a wonderful mimic, able to capture quickly and completely in voice and expression such disparate characters as Dr. Ruth’s cold Swiss guardian and her romantic French husband. But when Dr. Ruth talks about her recently deceased husband, or the mother, father and grandmother whom she still dreams about, Feldshuh’s face flashes with feeling, her body looks weighed down with the memories — and we better understand what it took for Dr. Ruth Westheimer to survive.
Survive and thrive…still. At the performance I attended of “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” Dr. Ruth herself, now 93 years old, was in the audience. And, Dr. Ruth being Dr. Ruth, was not just in the audience. She hung out in the lobby afterwards, posing for selfie after selfie with her fans.
Becoming Dr. Ruth
Museum of Jewish Heritage through January 2
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Ticket prices: $59-$128
Written by Mark St. Germain
Directed by Scott Schwartz,
Scenic design by Andrew Diaz, costume design by Elisa Benoni, lighting design by Mike Billings, video design by Brian C. Staton, hair by David H. Lawrence
Cast: Feldshuh Tovah