Becoming Dr. Ruth: In Life and Sex, You’ve Got to Finish
By Rebecca Halat and Adam M. Schenck
The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Becoming Dr. Ruth traces the story of the internationally-known sex therapist Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer from her youth in Nazi Germany to how we know her today. Youthful actress Miriam Schwartz portrays Westheimer, who is still living but does not broadcast. In this one-woman show, Dr. Ruth addresses the audience directly to share her remarkable story, which unfortunately is not told in a remarkable manner.
Miriam Schwartz engages the audience solo on stage, even making humorous “crowd-work” asides directed at specific theater-goers. The narrative, however, along with the script’s character development, misses its potential.
While the focus is on Westheimer’s life story, we critics never got a feel for how a Holocaust survivor, immigrant, and multilingual speaker became a celebrity sex therapist. This essential piece of the narrative is summarized in only a few sentences.
Like with other untied ends of the narrative, we critics were left quizzical: “So, anyone can become famous and hobnob with Bill Clinton; one just needs to talk frankly about sex?” To leave a loose end to a narrative is to leave an audience unsatisfied. In bed and narrative, one must get to the climax!
This play’s Dr. Ruth merely sought to educate and help people, and the Jewish faith does not say sex is shameful, but rather encourages sex as a healthy part of human relationships—that is, within a heterosexual married couple.
While it may be true that the real Dr. Ruth’s sex therapy focused on heterosexual couples, queer sexualities cannot be completely ignored in a play produced in 2015, even if the program says the setting is 1997. Even if Dr. Ruth’s primary focus had been heterosexual couples, the subject matter invites—and demands—that we reference other sexualities.
I (Adam) remember Dr. Ruth on the television; my memory of Dr. Ruth is certainly not that of a sexual prude, yet Becoming Dr. Ruth inexplicably insinuates that her advice was limited to sex between a man and a woman in a long-term monogamous relationship, if not marriage.
In fact, other sexualities get reference only for mild ridicule: Dr. Ruth would not “talk about bestiality” because she was “not a veterinarian.” Left unsaid in this seemingly inoffensive joke is the conservative rhetoric that compares same-sex sexuality to “marrying one’s dog.” In a play that covers the life of a sex educator yet does not acknowledge same-sex desire, one is left with the impression that Dr. Ruth was a regressive prude or came from a time where people had no idea of non-hetero sex, both of which misrepresent her legacy. Set in 1997 or not, the total lack of reference to queer sexualities strikes these critics as an inexplicable blind spot.
Given the purblind treatment of queer sexualities, we should not be surprised that dramatist Mark St. Germain also elides the entire debate about the founding of the state of Israel. This version of Westheimer relates her heroic service in the Israeli Army as a sniper. Again, what a surprising sub-narrative for a four-foot, seven-inch German Jewish woman, but again we are left wanting more.
Becoming Dr. Ruth fumbles its discussion of Zionism, when St. Germain insinuates Westheimer was a fervent ideologue by referencing a vague “war between the Israelis and the Arabs”—as if there were no Palestinians in the land now called Israel, and as if no Palestinians were kicked out of their homes in the 1940s. The Jewish experience of the 20th Century is many things, but the founding of Israel is not as black and white a case as is portraying Adolf Hitler as an irredeemable evil villain.
To critique the play’s underdevelopment of politics and sexuality is not to criticize Westheimer or her era, but does speak to St. Germain’s convenient elisions. Who was the real Dr. Ruth? Were the debates with which we still live not worthy of full discussion, while delightful banter about penises and vaginas are? As an audience we are left to wonder if Dr. Ruth’s historic experiences (orphan, Holocaust survivor, sex educator) created a more complex persona or if she accidentally fell into her fame.
The play is strong in its production and acting, and it does offer a compelling story, but look underneath the covers. The storms on our Saturday night performance made more complex the dark clouds in Dr. Ruth’s narrative, even if the script sought to simplify her. This one-woman play was not the one these critics were expecting, nor the one a contemporary audience deserves.
Becoming Dr. Ruth runs from August 20 – 30 at the Highland Park Center Theater, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul, MN 55116. Tickets range in price from $20 – $32. Student and group discounts are available. To order, call (651)647-4315 or visit mnjewishtheatre.org.