Skip to main content

Becoming Dr. Ruth at Theater J

Becoming Dr. Ruth can be an enjoyable night at the theater.

Theater is back and there was a full house for opening night at Theater J in the Goldman Theater at 16th and Q Streets, NW. Since we are still in the midst of a pandemic it was reassuring all patrons were asked for proof of vaccination when they entered the theater and asked to keep their masks on for the entire show.

The show everyone was there for is Becoming Dr. Ruth. It’s the story of professor-turned-celebrity sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer and her resilience and optimism in the face of adversity during World War II. 

Theater J first produced Mark St. Germain’s Becoming Dr. Ruth in 2018. The audience clearly enjoyed the show and gave a long deserved standing ovation to Naomi Jacobson the actor who is reprising her Helen Hayes nominated role as Dr. Ruth. The play is directed by much-loved Washington actor Holly Twyford.  I am always impressed when an actor can carry a one person show for ninety minutes.

The play, a biographical drama, tells the inspirational and unlikely story of how Karola Siegel, born in Germany in 1928, grew up to become America’s favorite sex therapist. Her parents managed to place her in the Kindertransport, even as they themselves could not flee the Nazis. Karola went to Jerusalem where, at age 17, she joined the Haganah as a sniper before continuing her education in France, and ultimately immigrating to Washington Heights, NYC. There she struggled as a single mother, before getting her doctorate, finding love, and embarking on a singular career.

The audience last night, it seemed most were supporters of Theater J, clearly enjoyed the humor in the play, but my friend who went with me and is not Jewish found it fell a little flat. I think my problem with the play may be more that I have met Dr. Ruth a number of times growing up in Washington Heights where she lived. My mom knew her and my sister had her as a professor at Lehman College. She is an amazing lady and it is close to impossible to fully capture her impish magic. Jacobson herself has said “I can never be her”. I also knew her amazing story so to me the play seemed more like a recitation of her bio and somehow just missed the magic she brings to life. Dr. Ruth is a funny irreverent impish spitfire. I remember when people in Washington Heights talked about her saying “she is showing off” when she would be picked up and returned home from her show in a big black limousine.  Ruth once told my mom she knew her sudden fame could all disappear in minutes and she was going to enjoy every moment while it lasted. Well good for you Dr. Ruth, it is still going on forty years later. 

Stage setting for Becoming Dr. Ruth
Photo by Peter Rosenstein

So maybe I came to this production knowing too much to be overwhelmed by it. It seems to prefer reminding the audience of the worthy aspects of her life and times rather than amping up any emotional impact within the play. It doesn’t have the impact of some other Theater J productions, one in particular in the same vein, The Children of Willesden Lane about another young girl, Lisa Jura, who was on the Kindertransport out of Vienna to England. That play was written and performed by concert pianist Mona Golabek, Lisa’s daughter.

Theater J Managing Director David Lloyd Olson and Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr
Theater J Managing Director David Lloyd Olson & Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr - Photo by Peter Rosenstein

Another issue for me was while Jacobson was great in suggesting the Dr. Ruth of today it seemed harder to see her in some scenes as the child Karola Siegel. 

Yet if you've heard of Dr. Ruth, and who of a certain age has not, Becoming Dr. Ruth can be an enjoyable night at the theater. The stage setting by Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway is simple but very effective. Sound Designer Kenny Neal and Lighting Designer Collin K. Bills have done a good job especially in one scene of a bombing attack in which Ruth was injured. So overall I think it is worth your while to get tickets and they are available at Becoming Dr. Ruth 21-22 Season – Theater J.