Of all the quotable quotes in Becoming Dr. Ruth: An Unexpected Journey, the one that sticks clearly in my mind is “How can we know who we are if we can’t remember who we were?” Not only is this the best ever motivator for journaling, but it also sums up the raison d’etre of the show. The name “Dr. Ruth” became synonymous with sex in the 1980s and remains so today. But who is this little woman with the funny accent who became the authority on sex and sexuality?
Karola Ruth Siegel was born in 1928 in Frankfurt to a Jewish Orthodox family. After her father was taken to a labor camp, her mother and grandmother placed her on a Kindertransport train to Switzerland at age 10. She never saw her family again. From there her journey to stardom took many strange turns across three continents, from joining the Haganah (the Jewish paramilitary organization), studying at the Sorbonne, and finally traveling to America in 1956. By the time the play is set in 1997, Dr. Ruth Westheimer has a PhD, three children, four grandchildren, and two ex-husbands. She knows four languages and has recently become a widow.
The one-woman show—directed by Ed Mobley and performed by Diann Ryan, who reprises her role from last May at Theatre on the Square—is set in Dr. Ruth’s Washington Heights apartment. She is packing to move across town, and as she picks up memorabilia, she engages the audience directly with stories of her past.
Ryan plays up Dr. Ruth’s cheerful, unthreatening, grandmotherly side, though the more serious no-nonsense approach Dr. Ruth is known for when discussing sexual issues is missing. Nonetheless, she maintains her momentum (and accent) throughout the show, and captures the pain of long-ago but not forgotten memories. Ryan is at her best when recounting Dr. Ruth’s tragic early life and her failed relationships.
While much of Dr. Ruth’s biography can be found online, hearing it told in such an intimate setting makes it even more fascinating, and in the end, character and audience are left with hope for what the future will bring.
Becoming Dr. Ruth is Epilogue Players’ annual fundraiser. Tickets are free (reservations are strongly suggested), but donations are most appreciated. There are also silent auctions and raffles that differ for each night of the run, Jan. 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. Go to epilogueplayers.org for more information.