You may know Ruth Westheimer as Dr. Ruth, the sex therapist who rose to broadcast fame in the 1980s for her famously unfazed counsel on all things carnal. However, you may not know other equally riveting facts about the diminutive marvel who doled out blush-begetting sex tips, all in a thick German accent.
Come to find out, the thrice-married psychotherapist’s life work was no punchline, and was instead the fruit of far more than an active libido. Westheimer is a Holocaust survivor separated from her family at the tender age of 10. She was trained as a sharp-shooter for the Haganah while living in Jerusalem, and at one point wound up on the wrong end of some serious shrapnel. She deemed her watershed success with radio and television call-ins nothing short of a calling.
These insights came to light in Mark St. Germain’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” the amiable, biography-anchored, one-woman show directed by Sharon Graci, which is now up at PURE Theatre. The work, which debuted in 2013 at Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts, also enjoyed a run thereafter off-Broadway.
The play places Westheimer in 1997, in her late-60s, two months after the death of her third husband, Fred, on the eve of her move from the Washington Heights apartment the couple shared. In sensible slacks, Westheimer shuffles haphazardly about the box-cluttered room, picking up the various and sundry stuff of her remarkable life, musing and waxing nostalgic over photos and tchotchkes.
Each prop prompts from her a new passage, spanning chapters such as her childhood in Germany, her flight to Jerusalem and her media heyday in New York City. At times, photographs project on a screen encased in the apartment window frame behind her. These reveries are punctuated by phone calls from her daughter and the mover, each pulling her in a different direction regarding the move.
As Westheimer, Teralyn Tanner embodies the good doctor's self-characterized cheer in the face of grief. With a decidedly light touch, she lobs her tales directly at the audience, often pausing to muse, but never indulging in the full force of bereavement clearly churning under the surface of all that matter-of-fact merriment. Tanner, in this regard, was suitably whimsical and sympathetic.
It's true, I did crave more evidence of Westheimer's well-checked gravity, to which the play alludes, as well as the intellectual sophistication evidently at play with Dr. Ruth, dusted as it is with drollness. By the end, however, Tanner's performance succeeded in launching that all-important throat lump that makes a play a performance.
With all the low-hanging fodder of Westheimer's striking rise, the script can feel perfunctory and at times plodding, meting out the incredulous by way of a dull-edged linearity. Also the tips, tactics and tidbits the therapist uses to clinically guide couples to more satisfying "love-making," as she likes to put it, are such theatrical catnip I could easily have done with more of those and less of the play-by-play biography.
After all, the meat of the matter is just how Westheimer endeavored to strip sex of stigma, cutting to the chase with all those stammering, abashed inquiries — and why, as we do ultimately learn, she made a mission of making a happy place of our most essential of human connections.
Urging the world to make love, one intimate, embarrassing and fundamentally satisfying position at a time, perhaps she had a notion that in doing so we won't make war — a proposition she knows all too well from those hard times encountered while becoming Dr. Ruth.