Dr. Ruth gets her due in new play

The­ater re­view of “Be­com­ing Dr. Ruth” at Or­lando Shakes.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Matthew J. Palm Find me on Twit­ter @mat­t_on_arts or email me at [email protected]­lan­dosen­tinel.com. Want more the­ater and arts news? Go to or­lan­dosen­tinel.com/arts.

There’s some­thing per­fectly fit­ting in the way play­wright Mark St. Ger­main has struc­tured his de­light­ful look at the life of celebrity sex ther­a­pist Dr. Ruth K. Wes­theimer. Oh, the K is im­por­tant. We’ll get to that in a mo­ment.

But first, let’s con­sider the struc­ture of “Be­com­ing Dr. Ruth,” which is on­stage in a per­fectly pitched pro­duc­tion at Or­lando Shakes. It’s a one-woman show, with ac­tor Eileen DeSan­dre play­ing the doc­tor. In­stead of com­ing up with a silly con­ceit — Dr. Ruth is talk­ing to her scrap­books or spends the en­tire play with a phone pressed to her ear … St. Ger­main just ac­knowl­edges what’s go­ing on. It’s a play, and Dr. Ruth is talk­ing to her au­di­ence.

It’s straight­for­ward, prac­ti­cal and maybe a touch cheeky — just like Dr. Ruth her­self.

Wes­theimer rose to promi­nence in the early 1980s by giv­ing frank sex ad­vice on ra­dio and tele­vi­sion talk shows, but St. Ger­main finds ways to dig much deeper than her celebrity sta­tus. As the ti­tle sug­gests, his play is more in­ter­ested in the woman be­hind the red-framed glasses and the distinc­tive Ger­man-Is­raeli-FrenchAmer­i­can ac­cent.

That ex­pla­na­tion of her vo­cal qual­ity tells you from the start she has had an in­ter­est­ing life. Evac­u­ated as a child from Nazi Ger­many, the emo­tional scars of the loss of her fam­ily loom large over the rest of her life. From her fa­ther’s be­lief in the im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion to her grand­mother’s ad­vice to al­ways smile and be cheer­ful, it’s clear to see how Karola Siegel kept these fig­ures alive in her spirit.

Karola Siegel was Dr. Ruth’s birth name, and that’s why us­ing K as a mid­dle ini­tial was so im­por­tant to her. Look­ing for con­nec­tions to her past, her her­itage, her fam­ily turns out to be the uni­ver­sal thread of the story, re­lat­able to any­one in the au­di­ence. If the mo­ments of re­flec­tion — aug­mented by Rob Siler’s ef­fec­tive pro­jec­tions of Nazi Ger­many scenes — show Dr. Ruth in melan­choly spir­its, well, that just adds to the feel­ing we are see­ing the “real” woman be­hind the per­sona.

Yet, there is plenty of hu­mor laced into this bi­og­ra­phy; it helps that Dr. Ruth can see the com­edy in her own life. Di­rec­tor Cyn­thia White ex­pertly bal­ances the highs and the lows. Bert Scott’s white-fin­ished apart­ment sug­gests ghosts of the past while re­mind­ing the au­di­ence Dr. Ruth is al­ways more col­or­ful than her sur­round­ings.

DeSan­dre is no car­i­ca­ture but a fully re­al­ized woman think­ing back on her life. For 90 min­utes, she holds your at­ten­tion as the cadence of her words ex­pertly matches the emo­tion of her rem­i­nis­cences. DeSan­dre gets the con­ge­nial vibe that makes strangers open up about their most in­ti­mate prob­lems to a stranger. And she has great comic tim­ing, too.

“A les­son learned with hu­mor is a les­son re­mem­bered,” Dr. Ruth of­fers as one of her cre­dos. The play il­lus­trates the point beau­ti­fully as it shares its own lessons: Per­se­vere through ad­ver­sity; honor your fore­fa­thers while be­ing true to your­self; en­joy sex but, for heaven’s sake, use con­tra­cep­tion.

“Be­com­ing Dr. Ruth” is a scin­til­lat­ing por­trait of a life well lived.

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