Metro Weekly

Review: Naomi Jacobson shines in Theater J’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth”

It's hard not to love Naomi Jacobson as everyone's favorite cherubic sex therapist in Becoming Dr. Ruth

Becoming Dr. Ruth — Photo: Teresa Wood

The stacks of matte white-painted moving boxes comprising the set for Theater J’s Becoming Dr. Ruth (★★★½) would appear at first glance to denote too literal a take on the concept of unpacking a complicated life. But stashed inside those nondescript boxes are secrets and keepsakes representing more history than one life could contain. Ultimately, playwright Mark St. Germain doesn’t stray too far outside those boxes, but he illuminates in ways both poignant and unexpected the remarkable true story of consummate survivor Karola Siegel.

The thrice-married German Jewish refugee of World War II, orphaned by the Holocaust, is better known to millions as perky sex therapist and media personality Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She’s in the midst of packing for a major move from her Washington Heights apartment when she spies the theater audience in her quarters. Characteristically chipper, she opts to entertain her unexpected “guests” by recounting her amazing life story.

St. Germain provides a snappy linear structure for charting the diminutive doctor’s bittersweet journey from Germany to Jerusalem, then Paris to New York. And the play’s director, Holly Twyford, makes clever use of scenic designer Paige Hathaway’s wall of boxes, orchestrating potent emotional reveals of the contents: personal mementoes that identify the inspiring and haunted real woman behind Westheimer’s adorable celebrity persona.

The play’s chief vehicle for conveying the reality of this steel-willed mother, educator, sex expert, and ex-paramilitary sniper is the masterful performance of Naomi Jacobson in the title role. Jacobson offers not a slavish Dr. Ruth impression, but rather a rich approximation that captures the famous accent and directness. Most importantly, the performer emanates the singular, undeniable twinkle that’s endeared the good doctor to generations of fans.

That pre-sold affection for Dr. Ruth goes a long way towards putting across a first-person biography that unabashedly idealizes its subject and her deeds, including her teenage tour of duty as a Zionist warrior in Israel. While Westheimer’s tragicomic tale at least partly reflects the complexity of this independent woman’s sex and love life, the script safely maintains her position as unimpeachable heroine in an uplifting chronicle of transformation.

Becoming Dr. Ruth — Photo: Teresa Wood

The play leaves no doubt that little Karola suffered gravely, and grownup Ruth has overcome enough to have earned the tremendous goodwill she engenders. “Always smile and be cheerful,” young Karola’s grandmother told her. “You are loved.”

Jacobson affords compelling glimpses behind Westheimer’s veil of good cheer, of the one-time single mom’s shrewd intelligence and deep sense of loss. Supported by supple lighting and sound design, yet fully on her own onstage, the actress shapes a complete evening of the material, connecting Dr. Ruth’s harrowing past and unique immigrant success story to the countless other young people who joined her on the Kindertransport out of Nazi Germany.

The production also creates space for those who didn’t make it, and it’s thoughtfully conveyed — both through the dynamics of the piece and Jacobson’s performance — how much this Ruth feels an obligation for making it out alive and fulfilling her dreams. It’s a debt she pays by helping “repair the world,” by caring for children and grandchildren, through sincerely attending to her patients’ needs, and simply by being her lovable, sage, inquisitive self. And that’s the best lesson of all.

Becoming Dr. Ruth runs to March 18, at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $39 to $69. Call 202-777-3210, or visit

Becoming Dr. Ruth at Theater J
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