Panache Theatrical Productions and Big Dawg Productions are pairing to produce “Becoming Dr. Ruth” by Mark St. Germain at the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. Panache founder Holli Saperstein takes on the one-woman show to portray the most unlikely sex icon of the 1980s: the diminutive, frumpy, matronly radio and TV personality who answered people’s most intimate concerns with kindness and humor.
Any one-person show is intimidating, but this one more so than most. For example, part of what makes “Santaland Diaries” interesting year after year is to see the different portrayals of David Sedaris’ sardonic elf, Crumpet. But doing a full-length show as a very well-known public figure—especially one with a trademark voice like Dr. Ruth’s German-Polish-Israeli-French-American accent—is quite an undertaking. Just the courage to get onstage alone with this role is inspiring. To sell it like Saperstein does is nothing short of inspiring.
Germain’s script is incredibly well-crafted; it’s also not the show audiences expect to see. I think most people who walk in to see a show about Dr. Ruth will expect something light-hearted, funny and a little titillating, as she talks about how she became a sex therapist. Though there are some very funny moments—like when she encourages the moving guy to love his penis and remember to bring bubble wrap—the real story of her life is much more interesting. More so, it’s more surprising than any prurient joke could be.
From the moment she tells the audience she was born in 1928 in Germany, the unavoidable math clicks: 1928. Germany. The Holocaust. Instead, Dr. Ruth tells us about her incredibly happy childhood and loving family that were her world until age 10. As the only actress onstage, Saperstein has to maintain Ruth’s persona while showing us her mother and grandmother packing her bags and putting her on a train filled with children who evacuated to an orphanage in Switzerland. She has to show us a 10-year-old trying to be brave and seeing the adults who love her making the dreadful calculations and decisions to try to save her life. It is a remarkable feat as an actress.
Not to be mired down, St. Germain’s script and Saperstein’s performance ride the waves up and down, undulating as life does. The unmistakable grin of pleasure and triumph when she shows the audience the target from when she took her grandson to the shooting range: four bullet holes perfectly in the bull’s eye. Oh, yeah: Dr. Ruth was a sniper in Haganah (the pre-courser to the Israeli Defense Forces). Not unlike thousands of other displaced, orphan children in Europe at the end of the 1940s, Dr. Ruth was relocated to Palestine before the creation of the modern state of Israel. The adolescent journey of longing to belong, to be in love and to grow is complicated for Dr. Ruth by her lack of a family or any prospects for a future. Saperstein shows this confusion to us with compassion, joy and, above all, determination.
Here we get one of two lines that define the character in the script: likening herself to a duck gliding smoothly on the water, but beneath the surface the frantic activity is unseen by others. It is the foreshadowing and groundwork for all that is to come: three marriages, two children, immigration to the United States, and a college education, followed by celebrity! It’s a surprising life, to say the least. Delicately, with great love, admiration and humor, Saperstein unveils the complications that make Dr. Ruth so much more than her fame alludes to. Just doing justice to her determination and work ethic would be a Herculean task. Saperstein must be exhausted by the end of every evening.
Do not be mistaken: “Becoming Dr. Ruth” is not just a collection of stories about a fascinating life. Dr. Ruth is an incredibly smart person who has spent much of her life learning how humans connect, communicate, process, and interact with each other. To write a script or perform one about her life that ignored this pillar of how she sees the world would be a huge disservice. It is hard to explain to people why education is so important in Jewish culture; this show comes the closest to both articulating and illustrating it for an audience. Here we see the reoccurring desire for schooling, including winning a scholarship in New York and struggling to finish her masters and doctorate as a new mother. But also we hear the haunting echoes of another line in Act One about one of her teachers driving home that “facts are anchors.”
It would be one thing to tell us about that duck frantically swimming but looking so cool, and another entirely for an actress to show us what lies beneath the surface and what she does with those dates and facts that are her anchors. As Saperstein slowly works through the dates that defined and changed Dr. Ruth’s life irrevocably (hers and 11 million others), it culminates in an unexpected but irrefutable victory proclamation, and so those anchors take on entirely different weight and meaning than before. Saperstein’s balance of vulnerability, strength, anger, courage, and determination, as she holds aloft at different moments a handkerchief and a photo of her grandchildren, gives the audience a stunningly powerful portrait of a woman of valor.
That’s not to say that Saperstein or St. Germain miss out on the humor of the situation. To have a lady that looks like grandma and sounds like Henry Kissinger advise on uses of whipped cream and chocolate sauce for oral sex is a recipe for comedic success. Saperstein sells it just like Dr. Ruth is real life: with sincerity. But that humor, that love of life, that infectious joy is the armor of two kinds: Yes, it is the duck gliding smoothly on the water, but it is also the ultimate victory of joy and love over destruction.
Dr. Ruth’s story and St. Germain’s script are sadly incredibly timely. From the bully in the school yard spewing hatred in the loudest voice he can during a national election, to accessing information that can be life-saving and certainly life-changing, Dr. Ruth’s journey and message are necessary. Hopefully, a little laughter will make the medicine go down easier.
St. Germain’s script is smart, provocative, compelling, and enticing—in other words, everything that Dr. Ruth says makes people attractive to each other. Saperstein breathes life into the words to make for an evening of theatre that is unforgettable.