ORLANDO — If you remember Dr. Ruth, the colorful and delightfully outspoken sex therapist from her 1980s radio show and numerous TV appearances in the 1990s, you probably think the idea of a play about her life sounds ideal. If you’re too young to remember Dr. Ruth Westheimer, you absolutely want to discover it by attending the play Becoming Dr. Ruth, now being performed at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater.
Because in this one hour and 40 minute long show, performed without intermission, you’ll discover just how fascinating and absorbing Dr. Ruth’s life has been — and her activities as a sex therapist really only cover the last 15 minutes of the show. Maybe that can become a separate play, or a sequel, but it’s not the crux of what’s so captivating about Becoming Dr. Ruth. Her life was remarkable long before she started giving people advice on their sex lives over the air.
Who Is Dr. Ruth Westheimer?
If you do remember Dr. Ruth (who is 91 years old today), you know she’s had quite a career: sex therapist, media personality, author, radio and then TV talk show host. She wrote books like “Dr. Ruth: Sex For Dummies” and “Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition.,” and she was a favorite on The David Letterman Show in the 1990s. This aspect of Dr. Ruth’s life could have made a very funny play, because if you remember her, Dr. Ruth’s blunt talk about sex, refusal to consider it a topic that was dirty or off-limits, and smart way with a quip seems ideal for theater. But that’s not really what Becoming Dr. Ruth is concerned with.
Toward the end, we learn about the single mother of a daughter who met the man she would marry, then take a part-time job with Planning Parenthood, where she developed a keen interest in human sexuality. She would study to become a sex therapist, then get an invite to give a lecture to New York broadcasters about the need for sex education programming to help reduce unwanted pregnancies. That led to an offer to do a 15-minute radio show called Sexually Speaking every Sunday at midnight, which became so popular it was expanded to one hour, then went nationwide and in Canada. Dr. Ruth had arrived, and soon she was meeting President Bill Clinton and former Beatle Paul McCartney.
As I said, terrific material for a one-woman theater show. But this play by Mark St. Germain goes back much further. It opens in June 1997, a few months after Ruth’s husband Fred has died, and she’s planning to move out of the New York City apartment they had shared for 36 years. Now almost 70, Dr. Ruth recognizes the audience in the theater, and she reflects back on a life that’s nothing short of startling. Radio sex therapist, check. Book author, check. But add to that Holocaust survivor. And Israeli sniper.
What Was Dr. Ruth’s Childhood Like?
In this very inspirational play, Eileen DeSandre gives a stunning performance as Dr. Ruth, in which she’s funny, poignant, and often painfully sad to listen to. She was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928, in Frankfort, Germany, the only child of Orthodox Jews Irma and Julius Siegel. She had a happy and blissful childhood, well loved by her parents. Ruth recalls finding a book her parents hid on the top shelf of their closet, that explained everything about sex, and she recallss stacking books on a chair so she could reach up and retrieve it. When her parents came home that day, she had to rush to hide it back in the closet — but she needn’t have worried about them finding out she had looked at it. By then, her parents had so much more to worry about.
A few years after Ruth was born, Adolf Hitler took over Germany. Her father was taken away a week after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938 that burned the family’s synagogue to the ground. Her mother and grandmother decided that Germany was too dangerous for Ruth because of the Nazi violence, so they placed her on a Kinder Transport that sent just 300 Jewish children from Germany to Switzerland. She settled in an orphanage there at 11 years old. She would never see her parents again. And she would never find out what happened to them.
I won’t say much more about the “plot,” so to speak, except that Dr. Ruth would end up in Israel, and later in Paris and the United States. In the United States, her life sounds quite average: she ended her marriage, tried to raise a child on little to no money, and struggled to get a medical degree. Eventually, fame would find her.
The play works so well for three reasons. One is that Dr. Ruth’s life is so harrowing and uncompromisingly amazing as a story of survival that when she gets to her quieter years, you’re breathing a sigh of relief.
The other is that DeSandre’s performance couldn’t possibly be improved upon, as she creates a woman who feels very much like a kindly grandmother or the sweet elderly lady next door. But if you stop by one day and sit down and ask her about her life, there’s a good chance that, like Dr. Ruth, you’ll discover stories that leave you speechless.
The third is that this production was presented in part by the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida, and it’s a sobering and much needed reminder that while we often view the Holocaust as an appalling genocidal crime that claimed the lives of 6 million European Jews, there were survivors, and they too still have a powerful story to tell.
So accept this invitation to Dr. Ruth’s apartment and learn more about the extraordinary life of this German-Jewish American. It’s a very rewarding theatrical experience.
Where Can I See Becoming Dr. Ruth?
Becoming Dr. Ruth is being performed now through Feb. 9 at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater at 812 E. Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park.
Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, with weekends matinees at 2 p.m. Call 407-447-1700 Ext. 1 for tickets or more information.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.