by Malcolm Gay
The New Jewish Theatre continues its eighteenth season with Mark St. Germain's Becoming Dr. Ruth, a comfy but torpid tale of survival.
Starring Susie Wall as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex therapist whose call-in radio show made her a household name in the 1980s, the one-woman show seeks to tell the human story behind the persona. What Becoming Dr. Ruth delivers, on the other hand, is a saccharine, overly detailed but two-dimensional portrait of a remarkable life.
The play opens in Dr. Ruth's apartment, which set designer Cristie Johnston has crammed full of empty boxes and all sort of knickknacks — everything from books and pictures, to turtles and dollhouses. (As it turns out, nearly every one of these objects is associated with a life lesson.)
It's moving day, and as Westheimer greets the audience, she informs us that she decided to move after the death of her husband, Manfred. From there, Wall, a gifted actress who manages to animate several passages in this often flaccid script, embarks on a chronologically precise account of Westheimer's extraordinary life.
Born a Jew, she was sent to Switzerland at age ten when the Nazis imprisoned her father. She moved to Palestine as a teenager, where she eventually trained as a sniper and scout with the Haganah, an underground Jewish group fighting for Israeli statehood. Wounded in a bomb attack, she later moved to Paris with her first husband.
After several years in France, she relocated to New York, where she earned a master's degree and began a family with her second husband. By the early 1960s, however, Westheimer had again remarried (this time to Manfred), later earning a doctorate at Columbia University.
Still, it wasn't until she gave a chance lecture to a group of broadcasters in the early 1980s that she started Sexually Speaking, the call-in radio show where Westheimer's frank, approachable and optimistic approach turned her into the phenomenon that is Dr. Ruth.
No doubt, Westheimer has led an interesting life. In St. Germain's retelling, however, its substance gets obscured by his strict adherence to chronology and its thicket of dates. What's more, billed as full accounting of her life, the play has no other point of view than Westheimer's own, which the playwright presents as one tidy triumph over adversity after another. It gives the show, directed by Jerry McAdams, a monotonous feel, with only the slightest of real-time dramatic arcs.
Many one-person shows avoid this pitfall by introducing other characters, who not only provide new perspectives and narrative tension, but also enable the performer to switch dramatic gears, imbuing the performance with some much needed dynamism. And while Wall is a talented actress who's able to brave some the script's most leaden moments, all St. Germain gives her is the occasional phone call, and there were times on opening weekend when all I wanted to do was throw her a lifeline.
"Dates are the anchor of memory," she says early in the performance, to which, by play's end, I could reply only: Yes, and those anchors have all but sunk this show.
Becoming Dr. Ruth Through December 21 at the Wool Studio Theatre. Call 314-442-3283 or click here.
Follow RFT critic at large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.