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Theatre Reviews Becoming Dr. Ruth puts the lovable sex therapist on full display, but misses the mark

Linda Kash plays the titular character in Becoming Dr. Ruth.

Joanna Akyol/Handout

  • Title: Becoming Dr. Ruth
  • Written by: Mark St. Germain
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Director: David Eisner
  • Actor: Linda Kash
  • Company: Harold Green Jewish Theatre
  • Venue: Toronto Centre for the Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Thursday, May 16

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In the wake of the Ontario government’s rollback of the province’s sex-ed curriculum, it’s both ironic and salutary that Toronto should get a double dose of Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

The first came with the recent Hot Docs screening of the new biopic Ask Dr. Ruth, attended by the 90-year-old sex therapist herself. Now, we have the second with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre’s staging of the one-woman play Becoming Dr. Ruth, starring Linda Kash as the good doctor.

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Where some are still uncomfortable with an open discussion of sexual matters, the diminutive, unflappable Westheimer has been one of the great crusaders for, ahem, carnal knowledge. Since the 1980s, her popular books and her radio, television and now YouTube programs have helped to not only demystify sex for North Americans, but to extol its pleasures and benefits. She’s the lovable bubbe who tells us not to eat our chicken soup but to make sure we’re getting enough orgasms.

That lovable bubbe is on full display in Becoming Dr. Ruth, American playwright Mark St. Germain’s 2013 off-Broadway play, getting its local debut from the HGJT at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. It leads us on a fascinating 90-minute journey through Westheimer’s remarkable story, from escaping the Holocaust to hobnobbing with U.S. presidents. But, while faithfully charting her life, it gives little sense of the significance of her life’s work.

The year is 1997 and Westheimer, recently widowed, is packing up her apartment in Manhattan’s Washington Heights for a move downtown. As she sifts through old photos, diaries and tchotchkes, she shares with us her past. It begins in Germany in 1928, when she was born Karola Ruth Siegel to a businessman and a farmer’s daughter. Her early years in the bosom of a loving family ended abruptly when the Nazis came to power, her father was arrested and she herself was rescued by the Kindertransport, which bundled her off to a Swiss orphanage.

From there, she recounts her teenage years in a pre-Israel Palestine, working on a kibbutz and training as a sniper in the Haganah, the Jewish underground army. Later, she’s in 1950s Paris, listening to Édith Piaf and naively admiring the street walkers; and then, finally, the United States, where as a single mother (having married and divorced twice along the way) she does work with Planned Parenthood and finds her calling.

Her experiences with sex and love, from her first crush to her last husband, Manfred Westheimer, are a leitmotif. She also takes time to relish her celebrity, with anecdotes about the likes of Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney, and recreates the local New York radio call-in show, Sexually Speaking, that launched her media career in the 1980s.

Kash nails Westheimer’s sprightly manner and distinctive accent.

Joanna Akyol/Handout

St. Germain, who specializes in famous-people plays (his Freud’s Last Session was seen at HGJT a few seasons back), has crafted a plum role for a mature actress, and the likeable Kash would seem to be perfect for it. Sure enough, with that signature pouf of blond hair, a brightly patterned blouse and turquoise pants, she’s the very picture of geriatric joie de vivre and she nails Westheimer’s sprightly manner and distinctive accent. As her Dr. Ruth observes, she’s been told she sounds both like Sigmund Freud and “a gerbil in heat.”

Yet, while she’s appropriately warm and twinkly, something’s missing. You realize what it is at the end of the show when we get to see a video clip of Kash as herself meeting the real Dr. Ruth at a book signing. It’s Westheimer’s wisecracking, slightly acerbic side that’s absent in the actor’s performance, that edge which reminds us she’s a tough, shrewd woman with a cultivated public image. There are opportunities in the play to let that mask slip, but Kash, still skating on the surface on her character, doesn’t take them.

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She does, however, look convincingly tiny as she winds though the mountain range of cardboard moving boxes that dominate Yannik Larivée’s apartment set. The boxes also serve as a screen for projections of the family photos that Dr. Ruth shows us. Family, in fact, is the prevailing theme of the play and the most poignant moments in this otherwise anodyne production, wanly directed by David Eisner, occur when Dr. Ruth describes her continuing search to find out the fate of her relatives under the Nazis.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a play about Dr. Ruth if there wasn’t also some sex advice. Apart from answering the questions of her Sexually Speaking callers, she takes time on the phone with one of her moving men to assuage his fears of genital inadequacy. “Love your penis,” she tells him soothingly. Bubbe knows best.

Becoming Dr. Ruth continues to May 16. (hgjewishtheatre.com)

Sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer says 'the timing is right' for a new doc on her life, Ask Dr. Ruth. The Canadian Press
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