The opening-night performance of Becoming Dr. Ruth took place Saturday evening, tragically coinciding with the day of a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead.

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This article was published 29/10/2018 (1130 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The opening-night performance of Becoming Dr. Ruth took place Saturday evening, tragically coinciding with the day of a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead.

It made for a sobering circumstance to see a work that often plays comedic notes at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s Berney Theatre on the Asper Campus. And yet, taking it in was undoubtedly therapeutic in a way sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer would appreciate. Her whole life, as we come to see, was about triumphing over the worst adversity with a smile.

Dr. Ruth, as she was known in her heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, was a celebrated figure — tiny, on the elderly side of middle age, speaking in a heavy German accent that made people think of Sigmund Freud. If she was short of stature (four-foot-seven, in fact), she was big on personality.

Keith Levit</p><p>Mariam Bernstein in Becoming Dr. Ruth.</p></p>

Keith Levit

Mariam Bernstein in Becoming Dr. Ruth.

She was primarily a piece of inspired casting for the era. Her doctorate was in education, and even in the era when sex education was on the curriculum of most North American high schools, she was there to fill the information gaps with fun yet sensible advice on just about any sexual matter.

That is not to say she didn’t set some limits, a fact acknowledged in the course of this 90-minute, intermission-free performance. But what she did discuss was framed in such a disarming, grandmotherly way, she became a media star at a time generally dominated by musclebound men and Amazonian women.

That, of course, is the Dr. Ruth most of us know. Playwright Mark St. Germain himself fills in the information gaps on her life.

Born Karola Ruth Siegel, she was a child of the Kindertransport who lost her parents and grandmother to the Holocaust and was herself saved by being shipped to an orphanage in Switzerland. As a teen, she set out for Palestine to work on a kibbutz and ended up training as a sniper with the Haganah, the Jewish underground army during the Israeli War of Independence, where she was nearly crippled in a bomb attack.

These facts are slowly revealed in the play, in which the good doctor, winningly played by Winnipeg actress Mariam Bernstein, is preparing to move from her New York apartment, where every bubble-wrapped photograph and knick-knack reveals another facet to an extraordinary life. (The set design by Ksenia Broda-Milian only looks cluttered. It boasts a formidable intricacy for all its economical design, all arched over with vivid violet light.)

The play itself is somewhat hokey, obliging you to buy into the premise that Dr. Ruth, in the process of packing, has been joined by a roomful of "guests," meaning we in the audience. 

Luckily, Bernstein is an actor of such technical facility and personal charm, she pulls it off. It doesn’t hurt that her own five-foot stature and her resting smiley face make a perfect fit for the character.

Even at the end of that hard, hard Saturday, Bernstein’s focus and delivery never wavered. When WJT artistic director Ari Weinberg decided to produce this play, he jettisoned the audition process and went right to Bernstein with an offer. He was absolutely right. 

Director Debbie Patterson says that when doing a one-person show, it is necessary to make the entire audience the actor’s de facto acting partner.

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Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.