If the name Karola Ruth Siegel doesn’t automatically ring a bell, then certainly the way she became known later in her life will. Dr. Ruth Westheimer rose to fame in the ‘80s as an unexpected radio and television sex therapist as well as an author, a grandmother type who gleefully talked about sexually intimate matters that few of her contemporaries would.
Westheimer is front and center in Mark St. Germain’s one-woman show Becoming Dr. Ruth, concluding its two-weekend run August 26-29 at Stage Door Theatre, formerly known as Stage Door Players. It’s the first production from the company since new artistic director Willie E. Jones III took over earlier this year after the theater’s board of directors furloughed longtime artistic director Robert Egizio. It’s not a top-drawer production, but lead actress Eileen Koteles makes it memorable.
At first, this seems like it might be an overly broad, too-cute production with Ruth making statements to others such as “Be proud of your penis. Be proud of your vagina” and comparing good skiing to good sex — “all about instinct and movement and taking risk.” Yet this is a play with a lot more on its agenda than funny lines and sex talk.
Becoming Dr. Ruth opens in 1997, as Ruth (Koteles) packs up to prepare to move out of her Washington Heights apartment. It’s a home she shared with her third (and final) husband for more than 30 years. Now she is alone and eager to share her story.
For those unaware of the titular character’s background, Westheimer led an eventful life long before she became a celebrity. By the age of 10, the German-born Siegel lived in an Swiss orphanage for students who had been sent there to escape the Holocaust. She later went to Israel and became a sniper for Haganah, the Jewish freedom fighters. After some time in Paris where she became a schoolteacher, she moved to the United States and began studying sociology.
It was only after a stint with Planned Parenthood that Westheimer got on track talking to others about sexuality. In 1980 she started her show Sexually Speaking on a New York radio station. A segment that lasted a mere 15 minutes, it became so popular that a year later she began a two-hour live broadcast under the name Dr. Ruth. That show lasted 10 years and propelled her to stardom and series on various networks. She also penned more than 25 books and even had a board game named after her.
The play is very detailed, possibly too much. Germain has done an amazing job of researching and understanding his central figure, yet so many other characters and locations fly by that it can be hard to keep up with them all. It’s often fascinating material but seems too much for its own good. As the title suggests, it does take quite a bit of time for the lead character to find her true professional calling.
Germain’s 2012 play moved to off-Broadway the following year and won praise for actress Debra Jo Rupp as the title character. It’s easy to see why this is programmed regularly and has become a regional favorite.
As directed by George Fox, though, this version has a distinct community theater vibe. The set is threadbare and there are no lighting cues or projections that could have enhanced the production or given the audience a better sense of what all Westheimer describes. It’s a 90-minute play that is stretched to two acts here with little fanfare. The show is — literally — all Koteles.
Luckily, she is well-equipped to take on the iconic character, having played the role before at the Artistic Civic Theatre in Dalton. Comfort and confidence marks her performance. From a physical standpoint there is little resemblance between the actress and the real Westheimer, yet Koteles does capture Dr, Ruth’s feistiness, warmth and ability to put others at ease. She’s a talented storyteller with sharp comic timing, recalling a story of meeting Bill Clinton and making a crack about how he made her feel special — as well as all the other women in the room. It’s also fun to see her character navigate the waters of what she will discuss and what she considers off limits.
I attended the production’s opening night last week, and, in accordance with a Dunwoody city policy, every single person in the theater wore a mask, even during the performance. (I heard no complaints.) Oddly, though, Jones — the new face of the company — was not even in attendance to welcome patrons after a year without performances for the company. He will be directing the Stage Door version of Romeo & Juliet in October.
The company’s rendition of Becoming Dr. Ruth isn’t imaginative or blessed with distinctive directorial touches, but casting ultimately saves it. Koteles’ performance is one of the most vivid I’ve seen at Stage Door in many a moon.