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“When a rocket like the SpaceX takes off, does it remind most men of an explosive orgasm?” Dr. Ruth Westheimer tweeted to her 90,000 followers last month.The tweet is characteristic of Westheimer’s style on the social media platform, where she finds a way to tie just about everything to sex, offering helpful tips like “If you’re celebrating #NationalPeanutButterDay the Dr. Ruth way, just make sure female partners don’t get any up into their vaginas as it could cause an infection. Otherwise, enjoy!”
Why is the nearly 90-year-old Westheimer a go-to source for saucy sensuality? Theater J’s one-woman play Becoming Dr. Ruth charts her development from a Jewish child in Frankfurt sent on the Kindertransport at age 10 to flee the Nazis, through her time as an Israeli sniper, to her ultimate breakthrough as a sex therapist and educator on radio and television, with plenty of time devoted to her romantic life.
Her world view, through which she finds wonder in the face of life’s evils and unpleasantries, can be summarized by her recollection of her pregnancy—“I threw up every morning for three months with a smile on my face.” She tackles tough situations with what she calls “Westheimer Maneuvers,” which refers not to a Kama Sutra pose but instead a way of getting what she wants outside the bedroom.
Westheimer, played with humor and verve by Naomi Jacobson, begins the play on stage surrounded by towers of white boxes. She’s moving apartments. This thematic device provides a neat way for playwright Mark St. Germain to bring together the many chapters of her life, even though it leads to a pat conclusion.Director Holly Twyford, set designer Paige Hathaway, and props designer Mollie Singer find more ways to use those boxes than most imaginative kids might. Jacobson climbs and sits on them. They serve as viewing surfaces for projected images. Some of them hold props and, in a few delightful cases, intricate dioramas that show some of Westheimer’s previous living spaces.
Much like the boxes, the character of Westheimer contains a number of surprises. Chief among them is that her drive to please and entertain people comes from her family, who died in the Holocaust. This knowledge adds a tinge of tragedy to the show’s many laugh lines, and over the course of the show’s 75 minutes, the giggles grow more bittersweet.
Westheimer is clearly the kind of person who tells a lot of stories, especially about her own life. That’s why the moments where Jacobson conveys that she’s said more than she’d like or broken her natural rhythm are the show’s most compelling. In a play that’s ostensibly about sex and relationships, those times actually feel intimate.
After all, you don’t need Theater J to find Westheimer’s prolific musings on sex. What Becoming Dr. Ruth provides instead is a layered look at a woman who fought for comfort—for her own family and for strangers who needed to hear that their desires matter.
At Theater J to March 18. 1529 16th St. NW. $30–$69. (202) 777-3210. theaterj.org.