Dr. Ruth wasn’t always Dr. Ruth, The Sex Expert.
She was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Wiesenfeld, Germany, in 1928 and was 10 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power. Her Jewish parents were taken to a Nazi work camp and, later, a concentration camp, where they are believed to have perished.
Their only child was one of 300 Jewish children allowed to leave Germany for a Swiss orphanage. After the end of World War II, she joined a militant, Zionist paramilitary group as a sniper.
I bet you didn’t know that about Dr. Ruth.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth,” Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest offering, tells how Karola Siegel evolved into America’s best known expert on sexual relations. The one-woman show, written by Mark St. Germain in 2013, is funny, poignant, insightful, educational, informative and, did I say funny?
Jen Shepard, the company’s executive director, is a tour de force as Dr. Ruth in the 90-minute production performed without an intermission. It was originally set for spring 2020 but delayed by the pandemic.
The show takes place in 1997 in the New York City apartment that Dr. Ruth shared with her husband Fred Westheimer. As America’s sex therapist, Shepard speaks directly to the audience about her life as she packs up her things to move.
As she reminisces, photos from the real Dr. Ruth’s life are projected onto what is a large picture window in the large living room that overlooks the George Washington and Tappan Zee bridges in the city.
Shepard, best known for her improvisational work in Bangor and Bar Harbor, perfectly captures the joie de vivre that Dr. Ruth projects to the public. The actress also convincingly conveys the deep losses she experienced and her constant search for home.
Shepard does not appear to be creating a character. Instead, she successfully channels the spirit of this remarkable woman, who turns 94 next month, onto the stage. It is a stunning, deeply felt performance in a production that eclipses everything the company has presented since returning to live performances.
Director Julie Arnold Lisnet, Shepard and the company’s creative team have launched a nearly seamless production that lets theatergoers feel like they are guests in Dr. Ruth’s living room. Lisnet’s vision for the show is engaging in every aspect and proves that she is one of the most insightful directors working in Greater Bangor and at the University of Maine School of the Performing Arts.
Chez Cherry’s cluttered set delightfully reflects Dr. Ruth’s life and all she collected in her travels, including several lovely dollhouses. Much of the credit for the apartment’s look and feel belongs to Properties Designer Meredith R. Perry. The lighting design by Scout Hough switches moods as quickly and easily as the sex expert does and lovingly illuminates every corner of Dr. Ruth’s life.
Neil E. Graham’s sound design helps theatergoers get a sense of this extraordinary woman’s past, but it often is louder than it needs to be. The mournful cello music played during Dr. Ruth’s remembrances of the Holocaust overpowers rather than underscores her story.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is the best overall production Penobscot Theatre has done since the pandemic hit. It deserves an audience.
But if the smaller-than-usual opening night crowd last Saturday is any indication, people still are reluctant to attend indoor, live performances. That is a shame.
Bangor’s only professional theater company is getting close to its 50th season, a milestone for any organization. If it is to survive and thrive over the next 50 it must have an audience. “Becoming Dr. Ruth” is the perfect show to get back into the habit of supporting and enjoying theater.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” will be performed through May 22 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., Bangor. For more information, call 207-942-3333 or visit https://www.penobscottheatre.org.