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photo by Keith Levit

photo by Keith Levit

Jane Enkin Reviews Becoming Dr. Ruth

by Jane Enkin October 29

It must be a lovely experience to spend an evening with the fascinating Ruth Westheimer, known to the world as Dr. Ruth. Next best, surely, is to spend the evening enjoying Becoming Dr. Ruth, Mark St. Germain's delightful one woman show outlining her life. It's a gripping life story, told with disarming tenderness.  Dr. Ruth is known for her work as a world famous sex educator, dispensing calming and encouraging advice on radio and TV.  The play gives us the full scope of her life from a happy childhood through to the cusp of senior citizenship.  (She was born in 1928 and is now 90 years old and going strong, but the play takes place in 1997.)


Mariam Bernstein, the Winnipeg actor who is a perfect fit for this role, gives an exuberant performance as the diminutive powerhouse.  She is sweet and nostalgic, but not sentimental as she looks back over the hardships, the triumphs and the deep delights of her adventures.  Bernstein is sensitively directed by Debbie Patterson, in her Winnipeg Jewish Theatre debut.


Ksenia Broda-Milan's clever set, enhanced by her varied and beautiful lighting, is an apartment made up of moving boxes.  More boxes are scattered over the floor.  From every shelf and table, Dr. Ruth picks up books, photos and tchatchkes to pack, and they trigger the memories she shares with the audience with warmth and energy.  Tastes of Dr. Ruth's down-to earth, open-minded wisdom, her life-affirming attitudes, and her surprising life experiences are sprinkled through the script, but along with these digressions the playwright gives us the chronology of Westheimer's life.


She grew up in a comfortable, secure Jewish home in Germany, and her family managed to get her into a Kindertransport to Switzerland, where she safely, if unhappily, spent the war years. As a young woman, she moved to Palestine, worked on a kibbutz, and then trained both as a kindergarten teacher and a Haganah sniper.  Subsequent moves brought her to Paris and  finally to New York. Warmth, new and old love, and losses, all informed her understanding of human sexuality.


Bernstein is simply terrific and drew a great response from the opening night audience.  She spoke to us like a warm friend, even as she described harsh experiences like those she had on Kristallnacht and in the early days of the state of Israel. Whether giving clever bits of advice about a satisfying sex life, or stern advice about moving forward no matter what happens, Bernstein is dry-eyed – a Yekke, or German Jew, doesn't cry, Dr. Ruth tells us – and deeply emotional.  She looks great, and she looks like she's having an enormous amount of fun in the role.


Ruth Westheimer herself is pleased with the play.  In an online interview with Ravelle Brickman,  Westheimer said, “...Mark [St. Germain] pointed out that by telling my story on stage, we would be dealing a blow to all those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, reminding them, and everyone else, that I, a noted American educator, was once an orphan of the Holocaust.

“That convinced me. Suddenly I realized that a play about my survival might actually make a difference.”

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