Review: Dr. Ruth talks sex and survival in Florida Rep’s inspiring ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth’

Review: Dr. Ruth talks sex and survival in Florida Rep’s inspiring ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth’

You get what you expect from Florida Rep’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth”: A bubbly German sprite dispensing frank talk about orgasms, oral sex, penis size, and masturbation.

“Sex!” she cheers with her arms in the air, completely unable to contain her enthusiasm.

But there’s more to Dr. Ruth than the adorable way she says “arousal.” And that’s where “Becoming Dr. Ruth” surprises you: Playwright Mark St. Germain’s one-woman show is a heartfelt story of survival that packs an immense emotional wallop at the end.

Before Dr. Ruth was Dr. Ruth, she was a short, 10-year-old girl named Karola Siegel. And this one-act play tells how that German girl survived the Holocaust to become an Israeli sniper, a teacher and eventually the famous sex therapist who delighted on late-night TV in the 80s and 90s.

The set-up: Dr. Ruth (played by New York actor Susan Greenhill) is packing up her cozy Washington Heights apartment overlooking the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. When she puts on her glasses, she suddenly sees there’s an audience in the room.

“All my life, I’ve loved the theater,” she says with delight. “Tonight, the theater comes to me!”

Dr. Ruth spends the next 100 minutes telling the story of her life — and there’s much more to it than what people saw on TV and heard on the radio.

On TV, Dr. Ruth came off as an irrepressible cheerleader for good sex.  But behind the scenes, she spent her life haunted by the moment that allowed her to become Dr. Ruth in the first place: Her family putting her on a train to safety during the Holocaust. She never saw them again (presumably, they died in Hitler’s concentration camps).

From there, Dr. Ruth hops through her life in mostly chronological order, using her apartment’s mementos and family photos (projected on the screen behind her) as props as she talks about her three husbands, how she survived a bomb explosion in Israel, coming to America and — of course — the first time she had “intercourse” (although that important moment gets surprisingly little detail in St. Germain’s script).

Greenhill’s Dr. Ruth is an effervescent host, bursting with joyful energy and a spot-on German-French-Israeli-American accent (I do wish there’d been more of that famous giggling, though).

Directed by Chris Clavelli, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” moves at a brisk pace as it steadily builds towards its powerful finale.

Along the way, the show is dotted with great moments: Dr. Ruth on the phone, reassuring her moving man that his penis size is just fine (“Mike, when you look down at it, your penis size looks smaller. It’s called foreshortening!”). Her time as an Israeli sniper in Palestine. How she learned English from reading “True Confessions” magazine. Her first job with Planned Parenthood and how that made her realize she wanted to be a sex therapist (“It’s the reason we’re here,” she says about sex. “So basic to who we are.”).

I especially loved the recreation of her “Sexually Speaking” radio show, with Dr. Ruth sitting behind a microphone and — nervously at first, and later with the disarming charm that made her a star — handing out unfiltered, often funny advice to one caller after the next.

I just wish Clavelli and Greenhill had slowed things down a bit. I suspect they wanted to keep the running time short — 100 minutes is a long time to sit for a one-act play — but that rapid pace means they often barrel through some of the show’s more emotional moments. Dr. Ruth laments, for example, how she never saw her family again, but the audience isn’t given enough time to let those feelings sink in. Instead: It’s off to the next scene!

A couple of other minor problems: Greenhill occasionally struggles with remembering her lines (but not enough to derail the show’s momentum). And St. Germain’s script has a too-convenient phone call toward the end that sets up the show’s finale.

Still, all is forgiven when everything comes together for that powerful, um, climax.

I expected to hear Dr. Ruth talk about sex in “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” And yes, that happens — a lot. But I didn’t expect I’d be sitting in my theater seat at the end, silently weeping and wishing I’d brought some tissue.

Florida Rep’s first play of its 21st season is an inspiring, often hilarious story of survival and family. And it sheds light on an American icon who, it turns out, is much more than just sex.

Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells (Facebook), @charlesrunnells (Twitter), @crunnells1 (Instagram)