Saying that Becoming Dr. Ruth is a play about sex that you can take your grandmother to might sound like a bold statement. However, thanks to an effervescent lead performance from Robin LaValley and sensitive writing from Mark St. Germain, the Broadway Vista Theatre’s production really is that kind of a show. It will keep both young and older adults fascinated, rather than have them cringing in their seats.
Set in modern-day Manhattan, sex therapist Ruth Westheimer (LaValley) is in the process of moving out of her apartment. She welcomes audiences into her home and tells them about her real-life story.
Before audiences hear too much about Ruth’s success as the host of the talk show, “Ask Dr. Ruth,” they learn about her life as a German-Jewish girl who was separated from her parents and forced to leave home during the Holocaust. A good deal of the story is devoted to her extended stay at an orphanage in Switzerland after escaping Germany, her life as a sniper in Israel, and her three marriages, including the last to her late soul mate, Manfred.
The dialogue is largely made up of vignettes from Ruth’s life, and nothing feels sensationalized or exaggerated. Instead, her recollections of the past are full of details that come across as authentic.
I have to give St. Germain credit for not downplaying Ruth’s religion, and his featuring of numerous references to Judaism throughout the script.
Aside from the incorporation of a phone that interrupts the action a few many times while Ruth talks candidly about her past, the dialogue feels natural and even informative.
LaValley portrays Ruth with such a positive attitude that she makes the sex educator a delightful person to spend time with. She does, however, get serious when the material requires her to, but she also finds various ways to lighten the mood.
We get the impression that the real Ruth is a hopeful and compassionate woman who cares about others.
Aiding LaValley with her performance is co-owner Hickman, who has the difficult job of staging a one-act one-woman show with very few breaks in the story. He directs LaValley in a way that draws theatregoers into Ruth’s personal and professional accomplishments, particularly when she picks up, displays and discusses items such as photographs and mementos during the story.
The audio from Hickman features songs and vocals that tie into the narrative, including those from The Beatles and Edith Piaf. Adding to the general atmosphere are the entertaining callers on Ruth’s radio show.
The only design element that could be redundant is the use of projections that show full-screen images of objects that Ruth interacts with on the stage. There are still pictures only visible onscreen that are visually effective, including photos from her youth and those with celebrities.
St. Germain’s writing, Hickman’s direction and LaValley’s acting create a touching portrait of a one-of-a-kind individual. Come for the discussions on sex, stay for the poignant and intimate stories about Ruth’s youth and adulthood.