April 8, 2020

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Lust for life

The colourful career of Dr. Ruth provides a challenge for Winnipeg actor

When artistic director Ari Weinberg landed the one-woman play Becoming Dr. Ruth as the season opener for Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, he did not open up the starring role to the usual audition process.

He went immediately to Winnipeg actor Mariam Bernstein with an offer.

And anyone with any experience of Winnipeg theatre, including last year’s Prairie Theatre Exchange show The Birds and the Bees or the previous year’s WJT production Another Way Home, must recognize the actor has a commonality with the famous sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer: a big, benign life force emanating from a woman small in stature.

Bernstein, at five feet tall, is quick to point out she would tower over the character she plays.

"I’m five inches taller than Dr. Ruth. She’s 4-7. She’s tiny," she says, laughing. "It’s the first time I’ve ever been too tall to play a character."

For Bernstein, the role turned out to be as much a voyage of discovery as it will be for audiences. Dr. Ruth, born Karola Ruth Siegel, fled Germany at the age of 10 on the Kindertransport.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Actor Mariam Bernstein will portray outspoken sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer in the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre production of the one-woman show Becoming Dr. Ruth.</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Actor Mariam Bernstein will portray outspoken sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer in the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre production of the one-woman show Becoming Dr. Ruth.

After the Second World War, she moved to Palestine as a teen to join the Haganah — the Jewish underground army — as a sniper.

"I was one of many people that didn’t know that," Bernstein says. "I think the audience will be very surprised at she was a sniper.

"She never killed anyone," she adds. "I believe in one of her autobiographies she said that if she had ever had to shoot someone, she would’ve shot them in the leg to immobilize them but not kill. But she was a very good sharpshooter."

That, of course, is a decidedly different picture of the woman who became famous as a no-nonsense sex therapist in the 1980s and ’90s on American radio and television.

And so it becomes Bernstein’s job to consolidate the elfin Dr. Ruth with her grim beginnings as Karola Siegel, the mother of all character arcs.

"It’s psychologically interesting to see how she had this extremely difficult childhood and how she just said: ‘I’m going forward. I’m not going to dwell on that. I’m going to make the most of the hand I have,’ which is really inspiring.

"It’s one of the most fascinating biographical stories I’ve ever seen," Bernstein says. "A lot of it has to do with how she was raised. She was raised in a very loving family in the first 10 years of her life, and she credits that pretty much for her resilience and her choice to be grateful and look on the bright side and look for opportunities and use them. That is something her family instilled in her."

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Mariam Bernstein at Berney Theatre as she prepares to play Dr. Ruth.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Mariam Bernstein at Berney Theatre as she prepares to play Dr. Ruth.

Notwithstanding her comparatively lofty physical stature, Bernstein says, she foundcommon ground with Dr. Ruth, who turned 90 in June.

"People who know me would say I have a fairly strong energy about me. I’m not particularly laid-back," she says. "She speaks with great authority and that is something I have been known to do on occasion regardless of whether not I’m right.

"Her passion is something I could relate to."

With that in mind, Bernstein says she unapologetically does her best to capture the way Dr. Ruth speaks and carries herself — including the "crackle" in her voice — even if that means her performance runs the risk of being deemed an impersonation.

"You hear people saying when they’re playing real people that it’s not an imitation, it’s more an indication... a flavour," she says. "As an actor, that always makes me feel odd, because for any character, I try to embody to the greatest degree possible the physical, emotional, mental characteristics of that person.

"So why wouldn’t we be doing the same thing with someone who is a public figure?" she says. "Yes, I went to videos. I have a book of hers on audiotape and she speaks very slowly in it and that’s very good for me. I’m able to really pinpoint her accent and her speech patterns, which are really fabulous.

"She has this vibrant energy because she has this lust for life," Bernstein says. "She is a life force, a force of nature and that is what I love about her."

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

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

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