Sensationally Witty Sex Therapy–And Sentimentality
Breaking the fourth wall in its opening lines, Becoming Dr. Ruth is a one woman show—but you wouldn’t know it until the curtain falls after the 90 minute, no-intermission new production at The Village Theatre, the lights go dark, and it hits you: that was all her. In that dark, in that applause filled silence, the whole of Dr. Ruth’s life seemed to hover, a silently turning magnet still resonating in the heart. And if opening night’s standing ovation had anything to say, Naomi Jacobson’s phenomenal performance is pure theatricality and verve.
In 1980, Dr. Ruth Westheimer became an overnight celebrity with her sex education radio show, Sexually Speaking. But America’s favorite sex therapist was born Karola Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany, ten years before the Holocaust. In between: Switzerland, Paris, Palestine, America; three husbands; domestic child labor in an orphanage, jobs as a kindergarten teacher, a market research caller, a doctorate in education, a professor, a Planned Parenthood research survey supervisor, and a sex-therapist radio show host; countless failures, trying again, and looking for a home.
In stark contrast to the maximalist details of her life, the play opens onto the set, sparse and gorgeous and mysteriously surrealist. Designer Paige Hathaway’s quieted stage holds space Dr. Ruth’s inward journeys to reflect themselves in the towering stacks of white moving boxes to represent the frenetic state of her New York apartment. Distracted by the contents of her half-packed moving boxes, she begins by recalling her life up to this point, and audiences in the back don’t miss out on the old family photos as they’re projected onto the towers of boxes, which in their white minimalism double as projector screens—and triple as dioramas, as she opens hidden doors and reveals idyll scenes of the places she has lived or dollhouses from another time.
But it’s not all memory and sentiment; in fact, far from it. Stoic philosophy sweeps through Dr. Ruth’s character, interweaving the tragedy and comedy that have striped her life. She allows emotion in enough to remember the people she’s loved and the things that matter—but not so much that she gets sad. And maybe, after the death of her husband, she’s running away from the home she spent her life trying to build. While Becoming Dr. Ruth is as touching as it is funny, it’s almost never cathartic.
But because the story’s emotional center cannot ignore the diaspora experience due to genocide and the loss of not just life but entire family histories, its endless wishes for happier memories were unfulfillable until grief was first felt: In this sense, a lack of catharsis makes sense; to refuse or be unable to experience ‘release’ over the kind of unfathomable tragedy that is surviving one’s entire family and community can be an act of resistance (to performing one’s suffering for others to experience as sensationalist or only cathartic) or of self-resilience. Becoming Dr. Ruth redefines stoicism as more than a utilitarian approach to finding agency in an endlessly uprooted life, but as a tapestry-weaving philosophy that might help us transform the keeping of emotions into the keeping of memory.
If Dr. Ruth didn’t let herself feel these things, it might be because to feel the loss of her home while it remained nonexistent elsewhere was to lose it all over again. But now, surrounded by the towering material evidence of the home she has made, she discovers that she doesn’t have any reason to leave. After all, that handkerchief with her childhood name embroidered on it, one of only three possessions taken with her on the Kindertransport that carried her out of the Holocaust and away from her family, is in one of these boxes somewhere.
And don’t worry, there’s also plenty of sex therapy.
Don’t miss The Village’s uniquely heartfelt and incredibly funny production, in Issaquah Jan 16–Feb 18, and in Everett Feb 24–March 17.
Tickets: Buy Issaquah Tickets here: https://tickets.villagetheatre.org/TheatreManager/1/login?event=3936 And Everett Tickets here: https://tickets.villagetheatre.org/TheatreManager/1/login?event=3942
Location: Street parking only in Issaquah. From Seattle, drive or take the ST Express 554 East to E Sunset Way and Rainier Boulevard.