Anyone old enough to recognize the voice and look of Dr. Ruth Westheimer will come to see her on the stage of Florida Studio Theatre’s Keating Theatre.
After adjusting to the accent and pitch actress Susan Greenhill uses in playing the noted sex therapist, you soon begin to take her for the real thing.
Greenhill wonderfully captures the energy, spirit and joy of life recognizable to millions who heard her “Sexually Speaking” radio show or saw her many television appearances.
Greenhill puts her considerable skills to good use in Mark St. Germain’s often fascinating but overly written one-woman play “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” which provides some insight into the woman who would become an unlikely icon to millions.
The setting is Westheimer’s Upper West Side New York City apartment in 1997. She is packing up to move to a new place after more than three decades. Picking up a photo or mementoes triggers memories that she shares with an audience, which for some reason has gathered to visit with her. (It’s a shaky premise, but it works.)
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she says. “It’s much better than talking to myself. I always loved going to the theater and tonight the theater comes to me.”
And then, in a scattershot style that jumps around in time, she tells a story that would have killed the spirit of a less determined woman.
She was born as Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfort, Germany. When she was 10, the Nazis were coming to power, her father was sent to a labor camp. Her mother and grandmother sent the young girl with hundreds of other children to live in Switzerland. It saved her life, even if the place amounted to a child labor camp. amounted to a child labor camp.
She never saw her family again. She made her way to Palestine, lived for a while on a kibbutz, became a sniper and scout for the Haganah, moved to Paris to get a degree in psychology and then to New York where she eventually earned a doctorate. After working for Planned Parenthood, she decided to focus on sex education.
Along the way there were three marriages and two children.
The story is touching with sprinklings of humor that can break the heart-warming mood. She is interrupted occasionally by random phone calls during which she freely offers the kind of frank sexual advice that was the hallmark of her ground-breaking radio show.
St. Germain’s script is always interesting, but the writing is too often fussy. It sounds as if she had written out her story and is then recalling it for the audience. But there are also moments when the actress, story and writing, working with director Kate Alexander, converge to draw us in and make it all seem spontaneous and natural.
Greenhill moves comfortably around Klyph Stanford’s apartment set, cluttered with dozens of trinkets that factor into her story. The design also uses projections on a large picture window to let us clearly see photos of her family that she holds in frames.
Through the ups and downs, Greenhill makes the audience fall for Dr. Ruth, just as the real woman has done for years.
BECOMING DR. RUTH
By Mark St. Germain. Directed by Kate Alexander. Reviewed June 27, Florida Studio Theatre Keating Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Tickets are $34-$44. For more information: 366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org.