Playing Dr. Ruth

by Maura O’Brien

Photo courtesy of John Snell and Mike Furey

On September 6, Lost Nation Theater premiers Becoming Dr. Ruth, about the life and times of Dr Ruth Westheimer, America’s most famous sex therapist. Playing the iconic role is Maura O’Brien.

Taking on the role of Dr. Ruth has been the greatest challenge of my career and the greatest pleasure. I remember hearing her on the radio in the ’80s. This German-Jewish woman talking about sex in the most outrageous ways. At that time, no one was doing that. Dr. Ruth was breaking new ground.

In researching this role, I was stunned to learn the details of her life and the obstacles and challenges she overcame. She was born Karola Ruth Seigel in Germany in 1928 and sent at the age of 10 to Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport to escape Hitler and the Nazis. Her entire family was killed, leaving her orphaned.

At 17, she moved to Palestine and was there for the birth of modern day Israel in 1948. She joined the Haganah, the Jewish underground army, became a sniper, and was almost killed in a bombing. She eventually married, moved to Paris, divorced, and finally immigrated to the United States (NYC) where she still lives today. She’s been married three times. Her third marriage, to the love of her life, Manfred Westheimer, lasted 36 years until his death in 1997. She has two children and four grandchildren.

Education was very important to Dr. Ruth, and she got her master’s in sociology and her doctorate in education. A part-time job at Planned Parenthood started her on the journey of focusing on sex education. She eventually trained to be a sex therapist and volunteered to speak to the community affairs managers of all the radio stations in New York, which led to a 15-minute radio show. The popularity of that show catapulted her into the public eye, as did newspaper articles, guest appearances, a TV show, and more than 40 books.

In playing Dr. Ruth, I agreed with Kathleen Keenan (the show’s director and producing director of Lost Nation Theater) that this was not about imitating her but rather portraying our interpretation of her. I spent time researching the historical events she lived through to understand what it was like to live in that time. I read several of Dr. Ruth’s autobiographical books and watched many clips of her shows and interviews she has given over the decades.

She is such an inspiration! She not only survived tremendous traumas but has thrived. She exudes and embodies joie de vivre and is passionate about educating people around relationships and good sex. I hope audiences will leave the theater with a better appreciation of her accomplishments and indomitable spirit.

Becoming Dr. Ruth runs Sept 6‒16 at Montpelier City Hall; tickets: $10‒$30

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