Who would ever have thought that the least-interesting part of Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s life would be her work as a sex therapist? A deep dive into her biography reveals that she had an incredible life before becoming a household name by talking bluntly, and positively, about sexual health.
Westheimer’s youth was full of tragedy; she was born in Wiesenfeld, Germany in 1928, and she wasn’t even 11-years-old when her father was taken by the Nazis. Her mother and grandmother sent her to an orphanage in Switzerland, where she was cruelly mistreated because of where she was from; she was forced to take care of the Swiss children in the orphanage and do housekeeping work.
After she emigrated to British Mandate of Palestine (a geopolitical territory in the Middle East that roughly corresponded to the region of Palestine) as a young woman, she joined the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization. It was in the service that the woman we know as Dr. Ruth became a trained sniper, and she was also seriously wounded in the Palestine War of the late 1940s.
That’s all before she began studying psychology, emigrated to America and first made a media splash in 1980 with her New York radio show, Sexually Speaking.
That’s a hell of a story, and it’s the one that writer Mark St. Germain decided to tell in his 2012 play, Becoming Dr. Ruth.
The play is essentially a one-woman show in which Dr. Ruth takes us through the critical events of her life in an extended monologue. PURE Theatre has recruited actress Teralyn Tanner Reiter (who you might be familiar with as the founder and director of Charleston-based non-profit Storytree Children’s Theatre) to play this iconic woman in a production of Becoming Dr. Ruth that opens at the Cannon Street Arts Center this Friday.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth is basically her telling her story from the moment her life changed when she was 10 years old,” Reiter says, “along with how she became the woman and the icon we see today, and what that journey was like for her.”
Reiter first became aware of the play around four years ago, and was intrigued enough by the idea to seek out Westheimer’s autobiography, All in a Lifetime.
“My husband and I were doing a cross-country trip to Montana, so we thought, let’s find out more about Dr. Ruth,” she says. “So we bought her autobiography and read it to each other out loud on the drive. I always knew her as the sex therapist with a radio show and TV show and the person who kind of helped liberate women and their bodies, which in itself is an amazing feat.”
“But then you find out that she lost her family in concentration camps,” Reiter continues. “That she was a sharpshooter in Palestine, that she was in this building that was bombed, that she ended up having all of these surgeries. You see this woman who loves humanity, and the person we know now was her way of helping people to connect with each other. What a fascinating, amazing human being she is.”
Reiter says that on that cross-country trip, she learned that Dr. Ruth was far more than the woman she’d grown up with who helped people talk more openly about sexuality.
“I was talking to some friends who said they always felt really naughty when she explained what a dildo was,” she says with a laugh. “But when you get into what this woman went through, and the way she’s always moved through that with such light and strength, her ‘box of pleasures’ is the least interesting thing about this woman.”
There’s an inherent risk in portraying someone like Dr. Ruth, whose one-of-a-kind voice is probably one of the best-known, and most imitated, in the world. Reiter says that she and PURE’s artistic director Sharon Graci, who is directing Becoming Dr. Ruth, decided not to impersonate Westheimer’s voice and mannerisms.
“For us, it was about bringing her essence and her story to the stage and not trying to imitate her,” Reiter says. “I wanted to tell her story, and I didn’t want the audience to get caught up in thinking, ‘Is her accent right?’ because I really wanted them to hear the story. Sharon and I decided to use the tools we have as actor and director to focus on her story and her truth.”
Not only is it a challenge to step into the shoes of the 4-foot-7 dynamo that is Dr. Ruth, but Reiter also has to carry the play, which is set in Westheimer’s Manhattan apartment in 1997 just after the death of her third husband, more or less on her own.
“The hardest part is knowing that there’s no one else to save me onstage!” she says with a laugh. “I guess for me it’s about making sure that I’ve connected with every single person in that room. As I rehearse, I concentrate on the stories I connect with the most; there’s something that happens to your voice and your body when you’re trying to portray one of those stories. So I find those moments I connect with and to feed that feeling into every single moment in the play.”