Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Girl Who Became Dr. Ruth

Becoming Dr. Ruth -- Square One Theatre Company -- Thru May 21


That’s the essence of just about every play that features a solo performance. Several come to mind: The Belle of Amherst, I’ll Eat You Last, Buyer and Cellar and Golda’s Balcony. The audience is invited in for a one-sided chat, a monologue offered by a person, famous, infamous or relatively unknown, who reveals what lies beneath the surface, the shared humanity – fears, hang-ups, obsessions and passions – that put flesh on the bare-boned, iconic image we may have of this person. Such is the case with Becoming Dr. Ruth, which recently opened at Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. It’s the tale of a young Jewish girl named Karola Ruth Siegel who became Dr. Ruth, the famous, diminutive sex therapist, and it is told in such an engaging manner that you feel you might, at any moment, be offered cookies and cocoa by your grandmother as she reminisces about her life.

Square One is a small theater that lends itself to generating such intimacy. Using a single set – Dr. Ruth’s Manhattan apartment as created by Greg Fairbend and Robert Mastroni – director Tom Holehan has guided Alice McMahon, who plays Dr. Ruth, to deliver a 90-minute reflection on a life that, given different circumstances, might have ended in one of the Nazi death camps, as did Anne Frank’s.

Becoming Dr. Ruth, written by Mark St. Germain, is history told from a personal point of view, for young Karola experienced the rise of Hitler and the attendant rabid anti-Semitism. She walked the streets of Wiesenfeld the day after Kristallnacht (Night of broken glass) and was in her family’s apartment when her father was taken away by some of Hitler’s minions. The civilized world’s response to what was happening in Germany was muted, but it did allow for the transport of a limited number of Jewish children to other countries in what became known as the Kindertransport. Thus, Karola found herself in Switzerland, separated from a family she would never see again. Her peripatetic life would lead her to Israel, where she was trained as a sniper by the Haganah and severely wounded by an explosion, then to Paris and finally to New York City and her evolution into Dr. Ruth.

The frame for the play is that Dr. Ruth is, after the death of her third husband, preparing to move from her apartment (yet another move in a migratory life). As she packs mementos – photos and books – they generate memories that she reveals, often with an implied sigh. In doing this, McMahon’s creation of the multi-faceted Dr. Ruth is superb, for you never for a moment disbelieve that this is a woman recounting what has happened to her. There are hesitations as McMahon searches for the right word, the correct fact, that give credence to the illusion being created. She often telegraphs what she really thinks about a phone conversation or a marriage by a shrug or a facial expression that speaks volumes. When she shows photographs of family, friends, husbands, children and grandchildren, you never doubt that they have meaning for her. She is not delivering lines, she is remembering.

Early on in the play Dr. Ruth leafs through a notebook she kept as a young girl and reveals her obsession with dates, for dates are anchors and the information written next to those dates tells you who you were, the minutia of a life. Playwright St. Germain returns to Dr. Ruth’s fixation on dates at the end of the play in a coda that can’t help but stir emotions, and as McMahon holds up a picture of Dr. Ruth’s grandchildren and delivers her final line, you sense the essence of Dr. Ruth’s life, its ultimate meaning. It is a life-affirming statement that lights a candle that defeats the darkness.

Becoming Dr. Ruth runs through May 21. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to

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