by Leigh Moyer
Invisible Theatre’s Becoming Dr. Ruth is about family, love, and dates. The show takes place on June 9, 1997. The specific date stood out in the program, but it was quickly clear that for Ruth Westheimer, dates are important. We’re brought along as Dr. Ruth remembers her life story for us, one specific date at a time. And what a life it is.
This one-woman show is a marathon of story that never stops feeling like a sprint. Susan Claassen is perfect as the energetic and enthusiastic Dr. Ruth. She plays Dr. Ruth at age 69 relating stories from her past, but often she slips, seamlessly, from telling the story, to performing it. She goes from the matriarchal sex therapist Dr. Ruth to 10 year old Karola Siegel, first discovering, with embarrassed giggles, “wrestling naked” in a book her mother kept hidden. She performs memories of first boyfriends and third husbands before returning to her couch to tell a joke, show off a picture of a grandchild, or answer the telephone. And she nails Dr. Ruth’s quintessential accent.
As is often the case with Invisible Theatre shows, the set (James Blair and Susan Claassen) and props (Heidi Peden) were absolutely amazing. The stage was transformed into a living room, the cluttered curio cabinets, the walls crowded with photographs, and the stacks of books gave it a very lived-in feeling, the exact opposite of a theatrical set. With the rows of dolls competing for space with pictures of grandchildren, books stacked and toppled as often as set up, and over a dozen turtle figurines, the space becomes almost a second character that Claassen’s Dr. Ruth interacts with as much as she inhabits.
With only Claassen on stage, directors Annette Hillman and Fred Rodriguez utilized many tricks to bring the story to life. First, the fourth wall is completely taken down. From the moment Claassen first enters, the audience is considered company and with knowing glances and well-timed nods, a line becomes a secret we’ve shared with Dr. Ruth, that she’s reminding us of. We are a part of the story.
One trick was to use a TV disguised as a painting, to show the many photos of family and friends, disguised as a painting. This effect might have come off as cheesy or forced if not for the very clear nod to theatre magic when it is first used. It fits perfectly with Dr. Ruth’s personality and makes it so even the back row can clearly see everything Dr. Ruth wants to share. While the Invisible Theatre space is intimate, this trick made it feel like I was with Dr. Ruth in her living room as she shared photos and memories.
Dr. Ruth is best known for her straightforward, accepting approach to talking about sex. She sees it as so far from taboo that it peppers conversation without warning. Lines like: You need to love your penis. And your girlfriend needs to love her vagina. And can you bring more bubble wrap tomorrow? The script brings you along for one story and then throws you for a loop with an unexpected twist, usually with great comedic value. It also exposes the woman behind the media personality. She is much more than Dr. Ruth. She is an orphan, a refugee, a Holocaust survivor, a Zionist, a mother, a woman who goes after what she wants, and a woman who has lost as much as she has gained. She’s complicated. I learned a lot about her. Not all of it I liked. But instead of feeling like a hero had been unmasked, the comfortable, open conversation felt more like talking to an old friend I’d fallen out of touch with whom I was finally reconnecting.
Becoming Dr. Ruth was a riot. It was funny, poignant, and uplifting. What seems the most important, what I took away from this play, is that life is a compilation of smiles and sadness, that love and good sex are key, and that we beat Hitler.
Tickets are available online at invisibletheatre.com or directly through their ticket agent at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/32555. You can also call the box office at 520 – 882-9721 for tickets and more information. By popular demand, performance run has been extended through Sunday, February 29th.