Everyone loves a good origin story -- a true rags-to-riches, underdog-beats-the-odds-tale can be almost as satisfying as good sex. (Almost.) Fortunately, a retelling of the journey of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, from her childhood as a German Jew pre-Holocaust to respected American sex therapist, might just provide both.
Through October 21, JCC CenterStage presents the area premiere of "Becoming Dr. Ruth," a one-woman show produced in conjunction with the Naples-based Bristol Valley Theatre. BVT's artistic director of 15 seasons, Karin Bowersock, takes on the role of the spunky 4-foot, 7-inch household name.
"Becoming Dr. Ruth" was first produced in 2013 and ran off-Broadway for a short time. It recounts the life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a famous radio and TV personality known for her honest, educational sex therapy. Most audience members will know her for her late night TV show "Sexually Speaking," one of her 40 books on the topic of sexual wellness, or her signature phrase, "Get Some." But Ruth Westheimer, born Karola Ruth Siegel, was also a Holocaust survivor, a sniper for the Haganah in Jerusalem, a college professor, and a thrice-married, sometimes single, mother of two.
Bowersock is faced with the most daunting work in this show. "Becoming Dr. Ruth" runs 90 minutes without an intermission, and takes place on a static set. Bowersock never leaves this set, but instead breaks the fourth wall almost immediately and the audience spends the show "conversing" with Dr. Ruth as she tells her life story while packing her apartment in 1997. (She's decided to move very quickly.) This proves a strategic backdrop to bring in relics, photos, and memories from the last 70 years of her life.
Bowersock's focus is impressive, and her commitment to the character of Dr. Ruth is unparalleled, from the bouffant blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses to the German-French-Jewish-Brooklyn accent mash up and high-pitched giggle. It's clear both Bowersock and director David Shane spent a good deal of time studying Westheimer. And the direction keeps the audience engaged throughout the production, eliciting many laughs with Bowersock's nuance, body language, and plucky delivery. Though there was some stumbling over dates (many to keep straight in this show), it is not Bowersock on stage, it's Dr. Ruth -- and that's an admirable achievement on opening night.
The set and props, in a sense, become the only other characters in the show: an innovative design by David Daniels provides plenty to look at, and creative projections by Brian Prather and Daniel Brodie add necessary historical context.
"Becoming Dr. Ruth" aligns with CenterStage artistic director Ralph Meranto's mission to bring new (or new to Rochester) works to the JCC, but it's also poignantly timed for current conversations around strong women, sexuality, and oppressed cultures. Regardless of each audience member's background, "Becoming Dr. Ruth" has relevant lessons for every stage of life.
CenterStage will host a special post-show discussion, "Because of Dr. Ruth... Trends in Sex Education, Therapy and Medicine," with Pebble Kranz, MD, FECSM on Thursday, October 11.