Manitoba·Review

Mariam Bernstein shines as Dr. Ruth in Winnipeg Jewish Theatre season opener

Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s story is remarkable, and even if Becoming Dr. Ruth — the one-woman show opening Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s new season — isn’t quite a remarkable play, it is one made entertaining by an effervescent performance by Mariam Berstein.

Irrepressible performance breathes life into one-woman biographical play

Mariam Bernstein gives an exuberant and irrepressible performance in Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's Becoming Dr. Ruth. (Keith Levit/WJT)

Hearing the story of a Jewish woman who escaped the horrors of the Holocaust — and went on to become a much-loved celebrity — took on added resonance Saturday, the day a man shouted "All Jews must die" before killing 11 people in a Pittsburgh, Pa., synagogue.

But on any day, Ruth Westheimer's story is a remarkable one. And even if Becoming Dr. Ruth — the one-woman show that opened Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's new season on Saturday — isn't quite a remarkable play, it is one made entertaining by Mariam Bernstein's effervescent performance.

American playwright Mark St. Germain's 2013 monologue provides a zippy biography of Dr. Ruth, who recently turned 90, explaining how a woman born Karola Ruth Siegel went from escaping the Nazis via the Kindertransport to becoming America's favourite sex therapist (with a brief stint as an Israeli sniper along the way).

Mark St. Germain's one-woman show is more successful than many biographical plays in that it shows us — more than simply telling us — who Ruth Westheimer is. (Keith Levit/WJT)

It doesn't entirely avoid the pitfalls of bio-drama — the recitation of facts and dates does start to feel repetitive at points.

But it's more successful than many biographical plays in that it shows us — more than simply telling us — who Ruth Westheimer is. Much of that is thanks to an exuberant and irrepressible performance from Bernstein.

Genuine warmth

Deftly navigating through the 90-minute monologue, she conveys genuine warmth as she welcomes us. ("I'm so glad you're here!" she exclaims in a winking direct address to the audience. "This is so much better than talking to myself.")

That warmth is, of course, one of the things that made Dr. Ruth a media celebrity — as was her always-cheerful frankness ("Love your penis!" she urges a mover who phones her to ask a bit of advice from America's best-known sex therapist).

We see also the fierce determination that carried her through the hardships of her life to the heights she would eventually reach (including rubbing elbows with presidents — "I told him to run for president!" she exclaims gleefully, looking at a photo of Bill Clinton).

Bernstein draws laughs with every wave of her hand and expression of delight from the ebullient doctor.

Bernstein draws plenty of laughs as Dr. Ruth, but also conveys the sadness in her life story. (Keith Levit/WJT)

And yet there is sadness in Dr. Ruth's story — including the loss of family in the Holocaust and two failed marriages.

Poignant moments

And as the play opens, she is packing boxes (scattered around Ksenia Broda-Milian's charmingly cluttered set), preparing to leave her current home ("There is something restless inside me," she says with a tight smile that doesn't entirely mask the pain at the core of the sentiment).

Director Debbie Patterson's production moves through Dr. Ruth's story with purpose, but also gives such poignant moments room to resonate.

It may not, in the end, be quite enough to send audiences into throes of ecstasy, but Bernstein's sparkling performance makes spending a night with Dr. Ruth perfectly satisfying.

Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's production of Becoming Dr. Ruth runs at the Berney Theatre (at the Asper Jewish Community Campus) until Nov. 4.

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

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