Theater J is open for business for the first time since 2019! But because we still live in uncertain times, the org graciously offered a streaming ticket option for their first production, Becoming Dr. Ruth, which ended on the 24th. I was debating seeing the performance in person for the cast talkback session, but I caught a cold around that time anyway so it didn’t work out. I figured I’d take advantage of a taped performance instead!
So I thought I’d first give my props to Richard Stucker, for filming. The audio came out great, and there were closed captions! Some of the performance involved projecting images onto the backdrop, and I think those always look better in person. There’s only so much one can do.
The show centers on the life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, famed sex therapist and Holocaust survivor. It was written by Mark St. Germain, starring Naomi Jacobson and directed by Holly Twyford. The two women will be teaching classes at the J later in the year.
I’m not an actor but I recognize the difficulty of a one-person show, where there aren’t any other people off of which to play. Unsurprisingly, this narrative helped that problem by breaking the fourth wall, and using the audience as “company” for Dr. Ruth to chat with. The setting was June 9, 1997, in the character’s apartment in New York, as she was packing up to move after her husband’s death.
Dr. Ruth walked around, chatting amicably about her life, with the occasional phone call acting as a topic transition in certain places. It didn’t feel awkward, though there were certainly bits, like when Dr. Ruth took out her radio equipment and answered a few calls from her old show, that could only happen in a dramatic environment. I’d say the sole area where I had trouble suspending my disbelief was in Jacobson playing a much-professed short person. 😛 As a short person myself (though not quite as diminutive as Dr. Ruth!), maybe I’m a bit too sensitive.
The narrative, in fact, was a bit of therapy for the character; recalling her past was an exercise in analyzing why she wanted to move, and if it was the right decision in the end. The backdrop was a bunch of packed boxes, which Dr. Ruth could open and grab props as they came up (also adding to the idea of clutter when trying to consolidate possessions.) My favorite part was that some of the boxes opened into miniature sets of the places where Dr. Ruth had lived in Germany, Switzerland, Israel and France. Was a nice way to imagine her life beyond the scope of the theater walls.
“I didn’t want to do the play on a realistic set—I wanted the story to reflect an inward journey,” Jacobson wrote in 2018, in an essay included in the 2021 program. “I didn’t want to be confined to an imitation; it was more important to me to channel her essence.” Jacobson—and St. Germain through the writing—toed that line with finesse. The character had to encompass both Dr. Ruth’s cheerful, and perhaps radical for the time, sex advice, as well as the trauma of losing her family to the Holocaust. It’s a performance that literally made me laugh and cry.
Plus, it ended with the image of Dr. Ruth picking a prop that tied her back to her lost family. Jacobson thanked the audience in the end for supporting the reviving theater and for being “the best acting partners.” It felt like a return to life for everyone.
Theater J’s 2021-2022 program continues, with Tuesdays with Morrie opening on November 10. In person and streaming tickets are available through the link.
Check out more of my past theater coverage through my “books, plays, movies and music” tab!