If you like history or grandmothers or sex or even just admire survivors of hard times, chances are you will enjoy the evening of storytelling that is Becoming Dr. Ruth at Farmers Alley Theatre in downtown Kalamazoo.
The stories are all true, and though some are harrowing, most are presented with a smile if not a giggle by the tiny Diane Wasnak as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the pioneering radio and television sex therapist active in the 1980s — and still with us at age 94.
The one-woman show, directed by Kathy Salerno Mulay, breezes in two acts in two hours. Set in 1997, it was written by Mark St. Germain and premiered off-Broadway in 2013 with Dr. Westheimer in attendance.
The play opens on Dr. Ruth preparing to move apartments, and she laughs about the tower of boxes, “We could put blankets over them and ski down they’re so tall!” Soon after she’s telling us why skiers make good lovers. “Good skiing is like good sex, full of movement and instinct and taking risks.”
Yes, we do hear about penises and oral sex and making love, but primarily hers are stories about growing up in Nazi Germany, leaving her family for safety in Switzerland at age 10, and the remarkable decades that follow, including time as a sniper in Israel, a single mother, and an avid student who gains a doctorate in education — and her three husbands.
The towers of white moving boxes that comprise the set are used to good effect with photo projections of her family and her history. She shows off her view of the Hudson River as she anticipates a new view of the Statue of Liberty, a smooth introduction to telling about her arrival at Ellis Island in 1956 with her infant daughter. “The buildings were so tall, they made me feel even smaller. And I fully expected I would see Shirley Temple on the street.”
For the uninitiated, Westheimer’s media career began in 1980 with the radio call-in show Sexually Speaking on WYNY, followed later by The Dr. Ruth Show on television. She was known for giving serious advice in her Sigmund Freud accent while being cheerful and funny and for her sign off, “Good night! Have good sex.” She taught about and authored dozens of books on sex and sexuality.
Wasnak, based in Louisville, Kentucky, responded to a casting call for the role with a video, and we are lucky she did. She embodies more than portrays Dr. Ruth, keeping us riveted as she moves around and over the set, acting the 10-year old, kicking her feet as she sits on a high box or feigning riding a bike through Jerusalem or pushing a baby carriage through the streets of New York. With a career that includes time as a clown with Cirque du Soleil and stunt double for actress Jada Pinkett Smith, it would be no surprise to hear this might be Wasnak’s dream role.
Without revealing the plot twists of the play, suffice to say there are explosions, romantic coups, children and grandchildren, and poignant moments that hit home all the more for their quiet, direct delivery.
In describing her time in Jerusalem on a kibbutz, Dr. Ruth talks about visiting the Wailing Wall and looking up as it towers above her, noting the tufts of growing plants peeking out between the bricks. “Just like us survivors, there is growth.”
She shares the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam, or healing the world, which she says is “My obligation because I survived and 1.5 million children did not.” Of course, her way to this healing is educating people on having good sex.
“Sex is so important to the human relationship. And the most important sexual organ is the brain. In the Jewish tradition sex has never been shameful.”
Dr. Ruth’s overarching story is one of victory and joy over the pain and sorrow of loss and of surviving the Holocaust, which her family did not.
“Sometimes I dream they found me in Jerusalem, and that we came to America together… but when I look at my grandchildren I know that Hitler lost and I won.”
Because of its popularity — opening weekend is sold out, Becoming Dr. Ruth has been extended for a third weekend and continues through March 26.