Arts & Theater

Review: ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth’ lets a little woman’s big life speak for itself

Anne O’Sullivan as Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Anne O’Sullivan as Dr. Ruth Westheimer Rudy Meyers Photography

Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer has had such an extraordinary life that numerous episodes from it could be full-length dramas. In the biographical one-woman play “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” now at the B Street Theatre mainstage, Westheimer mushes the stories together while telling them directly to the audience. The convention makes for a mixed-bag monologue. Occasionally feeling like the stuffy recitation of a lengthy résumé, there are also moments of humor and poignancy in playwright Mark St. Germain’s 2012 drama.

Anne O’Sullivan, who understudied the role in its off-Broadway world premiere and played it in an East Coast production, takes on Westheimer here. The actual Dr. Ruth is famously tiny (4-foot-7) with a bright, outsized personality, which the petite O’Sullivan approximates nicely.

Popularly know as Dr. Ruth, Westheimer became famous on radio and later television as a frank, good-humored, German-accented sex therapist. It was an unlikely celebrity born of a dark childhood and coming of age in Europe during and after World War II.

The heart of the narrative comes early. In 1939 10-year-old Karola Ruth Seigel, living in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of modest working-class Orthodox Jews, is sent to Switzerland. Sending her off are her mother and grandmother, as her father has already been taken away by the Nazis. She will never see them again. Westheimer learned in 1945 that her parents had been killed, but the play suggests she continued wondering into her adulthood if they had somehow survived.

The play opens in 1997 with Westheimer nearly 70 years old, packing up her longtime Washington Heights apartment in preparation of moving after the death of her third husband, Fred Westheimer. With a quick introduction, Westheimer moves back in time telling the chronological story of how she became a 1980s media celebrity and cultural icon.

After escaping the rising tide of f fascism through the Kindertransport rescue effort, Westheimer was raised in a Swiss orphanage. She continually identifies herself as a Zionist and at 17 joins the Haganah (a Jewish paramilitary organization) in Jerusalem, being trained as a scout and sniper.

The narrative continues with the high points of Westheimer’s life, her early marriages, the consistent love of education, life in New York as a single mother and the eventual involvement in sex therapy.

It’s impossible not to admire Westheimer’s resiliency and positive mental attitude as she makes her way. Playwright Germain gives it to us straight, and director Jerry Montoya similarly allows the little woman’s big life to speak for itself.

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

Becoming Dr. Ruth

What: Anne O’Sullivan stars in the one-woman play about the early years of sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Jerry Montoya directs.

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays through Feb. 26

Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento

Tickets: $26-$38

Information: 916-443-5300, bstreettheatre.org

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