At age 91 Dr. Ruth is still feisty. When I met her in 2014, she was appearing at a special performance of a play written about her life, Becoming Dr. Ruth. This is the play now being performed at The Invisible Theatre (IT) in Tucson, with Susan Claassen in the title role. Claassen is managing artistic director of the IT, where she has produced more than 450 productions in the past 45 years.
Dr. Ruth, for those few who don’t know, is America’s most famous sex therapist, with a media career that began in 1980. Her outspoken nature is very much in evidence here. Interspersed with her life story, Claassen (as Dr. Ruth) keeps getting interrupted by phone calls. Some of them ask for advice. “I have helped many men with their penises,” she tells the audience. “Love your penis.”
Despite that fixation, she told the audience “The most important sexual organ is the brain, the site of the libido. It can keep working into your 90s. I keep raising the age every year,” she said to peals of laughter.
Many of the memories shared with the audience relate to the loss of her grandmother and parents to the Nazis. “On November 15, 1938,” she relates, “we saw swastikas painted everywhere” in the city. The next day “the SS came to our apartment. I saw my father taken to a truck. He turned back, saw me and smiled.” She never saw him again.
As a young Jewish girl she was one of just 300 allowed to leave for the safe haven of Switzerland. Her mother and grandmother saw her off at the train station. “You will get so much chocolate” in Switzerland her grandmother said as she departed. She never saw either one again.
Changing her name to Ruth, she moved to Palestine at age 17. “I joined the Jewish Underground Army.” It was on her 20th birthday that she was felled by shrapnel from an exploding bomb in the 1948 war against Israel. “The top of my right foot was blown off.”
But she persevered, eventually moved to America, got a PhD and thus became Dr. Ruth in 1970. Once on the radio and then TV, “I went from being a professor to a celebrity overnight.”
Being a one-woman show, everything depends on the ability of the actress to make us believe we are seeing the real Dr. Ruth. In this Claassen succeeds admirably, as she truly embodies both the role and the persona of Ruth Westheimer. The set, however, distracted one a bit. The real Dr. Ruth is a classy lady, but the items on the shelves seemed quite tacky in comparison to what she is really surrounded with. On the plus side, the use of a video screen to show the photos Dr Ruth discusses in the play makes it easy for the audience to see these important images.
A fascinating and captivating performance, this is one not to be missed here in Tucson. A truly memorable tribute to a great lady, offered to us by another great lady, Susan Claassen. What a treat!
Becoming Dr. Ruth is being performed through Feb. 29, 2020.
Visit the website for tickets: invisibletheatre.com