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Mariam Bernstein as Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN (Posted Oct. 27)

I can’t remember exactly the first time I heard of “Dr. Ruth”. It was probably sometime in the 1970s when she began to garner a great deal of attention on some of the most popular television shows of that era, especially Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”.



Of course, the sight of a diminutive and grandmotherly woman in her 60s dishing out sex advice in the frankest possible terms without blanching was certainly a novelty. But, other than knowing that she was Jewish and spoke with a German accent, I can’t say that I knew a great deal about her background.

Now, in a pulsating 90-minute show the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre will be treating local audiences to a treat of a one-woman play starring the irrepressible Mariam Bernstein. First brought to the stage in New York City in 2012, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” is a perfect vehicle for an actor who can combine dramatic storytelling with a flair for delivering a perfect one-liner, as Bernstein does in her performance.

Set in Dr. Ruth’s Washington Heights apartment shortly after the death of her third – and truly beloved third husband Fred, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” tells the story of the woman who was born Karola Ruth Siegel in 1928 in Frankfurt, Germany. Dr. Ruth’s story, even before she achieved great renown as a sex therapist, is a fascinating one.

Although the story is told somewhat chronologically, it skips back and forth from the present (in 1997) to the past, as Dr. Ruth tells one story after another how she managed to be the only member in her family to survive the Holocaust. One awful moment that she recalls with explicit detail is when her father is taken away shortly after Kristallnacht, in 1938. As he is being led on to a truck by the SS he turns to wave good bye to her as she watches from a window. When her mother and grandmother, with whom she is left, come to the realization once the male in the family is gone that there is no hope for the Jews in Germany, they decide to move quickly to get young Karla out of the country.

Despite the agony of having to leave her family behind though, this girl displays a toughness of spirit and a readiness to tackle challenges, no matter how daunting. As Bernstein wraps herself in the character, we can readily empathize first, with a ten-year-old who is one of the few German children lucky to escape from that country on what became known as the “Kindertrasnport”, then later with the young woman who finds herself in Palestine post-war, where she readily joins the Haganah, only to find that she has exceptional ability as a sharpshooter.

Along the way Dr. Ruth reveals her early adventures in love – silly and immature as those first adolescent longings may seem. Although just 4’ 7”, Dr. Ruth never finds her shortness to be a particular handicap. The fact that Mariam Bernstein is also somewhat vertically challenged lends a real authenticity to the manner in which she describes those situations in which she finds herself looking up at others towering over her. As she describes it though, in looking for a compatible male, if she found someone who was good looking, intelligent – and short, that certainly checked off all the right boxes.

By now anyone familiar with having seen or heard Dr. Ruth would be aware what a great sense of humour she has. One line in particular typifies how quick she is (and she’s still going in real life, at age 90) when she says there are only two subjects she won’t tackle: “sadomasochism and bestiality”. She says she won’t deal with bestiality because she’s “not a veterinarian”.

Usually when one is watching a biographical story where one knows the outcome there is a natural tendency to want to skip over the early parts of a subject’s life so that you can get to the parts of a story that are better known. Think of all those jukepbox musicals that have become so popular, such as “Jersey Boys” or “Beautiful”, the Carole King musical. Sure, it’s interesting to find out something about the early years, but what really grabs the audience’s attention is when someone’s special talent is discovered and that person or group grabs the public’s attention.

In “Becoming Dr. Ruth” though, Dr. Ruth’s transformation into a hugely popular media personality, while certainly a matter of some curiosity, is only one facet of her fascinating life. Although her life has by no means been enviable in so many respects, her story is so compelling that you find yourself riveted to its telling.

And, because the manner in which Mariam Bernstein relates to the audience, speaking directly to theatre-goers as if they’re in her living room, makes you feel that she’s telling her life story the same way she would if you were sitting with her in her living room, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” is as enjoyable as meeting someone about whom you knew very little and finding yourself totally drawn into their telling their life story.

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is on at the Berney Theatre until November 4.

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