In a time when celebrity memoirs offer ghost-writer storytelling, often glamorizing life in envy of its readers, playwright Mark St. Germain (“Freud’s Last Session”) has put forth a stage show of an iconoclast that will titillate and impassion audiences toward something more impacting. Having debuted in 2012—with St. Germain writing it in close approval from America’s famous sex therapist—“Becoming Dr. Ruth” will open this week at Cape Fear Playhouse.
The show is a collaboration between two companies in town: the veteran Big Dawg Productions and new kid on the block, Panache Theatrical Productions. Big Dawg’s artistic director, Steve Vernon, wanted to make the show a part of their current season but couldn’t find room for it. Instead, he suggested Panache’s founders, Holli Saperstein and Anthony Lawson, produce it.
“They became enthralled with the play as well and had plans [for] Holli [to direct] it,” Vernon tells. “She shopped the script around to several actresses, but they all thought they weren’t ‘right’ for the role. They were afraid they were too young or too old or too tall or too fat or too thin.”
Vernon imagined Saperstein playing Dr. Ruth Westheimer from the get-go, actually, and encouraged her to take it on instead of fitting the part for another actress. When she agreed, only one caveat came with it: for Vernon to direct. “I wouldn’t have done this without Steve,” Saperstein admits. “He has brought things out that I may have never seen without him.”
The show is set in Dr. Ruth’s Washington Heights apartment in the late ‘90s. The audience sees remnants of her world pepper the set, via pictures with rock stars, celebrities and dignitaries, as well as vestiges of her Jewish heritage. Dr. Ruth, née Karola Ruth Siegel, was shipped to a Swiss boarding school as a child by her family, and inevitably escaped perishing in the concentration camps of Germany, which took the lives of her mother and father. She also went on to serve in the Jewish underground army, Haganah (which became the core of the Israeli Defense Force) in Palestine at 17.
“I did not know she survived the Holocaust,” Saperstein says. “[Or] that she became a sniper in Israel—that she had survived so much and always had the goal of becoming a doctor. Even when life tried to stop that from happening, she persevered and prevailed.”
The show goes through Dr. Ruth’s youth and adulthood, including her three marriages and the rearing of her children. It follows her education as a therapist and her rise to fame in the states as a career woman who took on a job that was groundbreakingly ahead of its time.
“It is a great blend of fascinating, poignant and has some terrific humor,” Saperstein explains. “Dr. Ruth is such a positive, cheerful and driven woman even in the face of adversity.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the role for Saperstein has been to maintain control over her emotions. The endurance and dimension of the character has been overwhelming to portray at times.
“It is a wonderful challenge for an actress to get to not only play a living icon, but also to take on a one-woman show,” Saperstein says. “Both terrified me but also made me want to take on the challenge . . . I have never had to be as brave as her. She culturally was taught to be in control of her emotions, even in the face of tragedy. As an actress, emotions can be so close to the surface. I have the challenge of making sure to keep in control while still letting the audience feel it fully.”
According to Vernon, the show presents itself in perfect syncopation of showing reverence and irreverence. It builds on a hefty dose of drama backed by humor to break up the gravity of Dr. Ruth’s daring life.
“I was already fascinated by the idea of revealing the human side of someone who was an icon, but the play did more than that,” Vernon details. “It reveals not only Dr. Ruth’s humanity but also that of the world around her.”
Essentially, the audience becomes guests in Dr. Ruth’s home. The fourth wall is broken between them and the character to reveal a narrative completely parallel to what we’re currently seeing on today’s news.
“Issues of how the world treated Jewish refugees serv[e] as a metaphor for how we see Syrian refugees being treated now,” Vernon says. “The play addresses themes of immigration, the notion of feminism and the will to shatter preconceived notions of what women can accomplish, the importance of sex education and the ability to pursue the American Dream, regardless of one’s background.”
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” reaches beyond the norm of what one would expect of a talk-show host and columnist who became a media harbinger for frank sex talk. Part of the doctor’s image also is apparent in her literal stature. Dr. Ruth amazed even more when folks realized such big talk came from a 4-foot-7 woman. Vernon and his crew have become quite creative in assuring Saperstein believably owns the diminutive height.
“We are using some cool tricks,” Vernon tells. “Jeff Loy has lent his considerable talents to the production, helping design and build a practical set that incorporates forced perspective. Nick Fenner is creating a light design that is not only functional but that also has a couple of cool surprises. The show also relies on voice overs and other sound effects, as well as projected images, so it is a multi-media performance.”