Reviewed by Nan Lincoln
Special to The Ellsworth American
BANGOR — Anyone with the notion that improv performers are simply actors who can’t memorize lines needs to go see Jen Shepard in the one-woman tour-d’ force “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” which opened last weekend at the Penobscot Theatre Company’s Bangor Opera House.
Best known, perhaps, for her performances at ImprovAcadia, the nightclub she and her husband, Larrance Fingerhut, started some 20 years ago in Bar Harbor, Shepard brings all the edgy improv dynamic, comic timing, seemingly boundless energy, physicality and her natural charisma to this role. And, oh yes, pages and pages of memorized dialogue.
Actually, if Shepard were about a foot taller, she would make a terrific casting choice for Julia Child, cheerfully swilling wine, flinging chicken parts about and mugging for an enthralled TV audience. But as it happens, the pixieish actor is the perfect fit for another beloved, more diminutive, media icon who came to fame in the 1980s. Dr. Ruth Westheimer was known for her frank, informed and often humorous discussions about sex.
OK, it’s a given that a professional comedian should nail Dr. Ruth’s adorably naughty humor.
“Skiers make the best lovers because they don’t sit in front of a television like couch potatoes. They take a risk and they wiggle their behinds. They also meet new people on the ski lift.”
But the wonderful surprise is that Shepard also can make us weep as her Dr. Ruth takes us on an extraordinary journey starting in Germany 93 years ago and eventually bringing her to the United States, via Switzerland, France and Israel.
In this show, we first meet the retired Dr. Ruth in her handsome NYC apartment, where she is busy wrapping up cherished tchotchkes for a planned move.
Kudos are due here to props mistress Meredith Perry for the marvelous collection of objects with which she has filled the set’s cupboards, shelves and horizontal surfaces. They seem so perfect one imagines the real Dr. Ruth may want her stuff back. In fact, if this PTC set, designed by Chez Cherry, with a glorious view of the Brooklyn Bridge, were the real deal, it would go for millions on the real estate market.
But it’s even better than the real thing because that window doubles as a screen upon which are projected scenes from Dr. Ruth’s life and relevant history as her story unfolds.
Tragically that story includes Nazis. In 1938, the day after Kristallnacht, when Hitler’s thugs destroyed the temples and businesses of Germany’s Jewish population, Ruth’s father was among the 30,000 Jewish men arrested by the Gestapo and sent to work camps. Before she was taken away herself, her mother managed to get 10-year-old Karola (Ruth’s birth name) on a “kinder transport” to Switzerland, where she ended up languishing through the war in a bleak orphanage, wondering when she would ever see her parents and extended family again.
“For the first 10 years of my life I was loved,” she says ruefully. “It was that security that gave me the strength to get through what came next.”
She makes a connection between the loss of her family — the emotional support and physical contact they had provided — and her eventual interest in human relationships and sex.
As surprising, and frequently horrifying, as the events of Dr. Ruth’s life often are this engaging show is, like the lady herself, relentlessly upbeat and often hilarious.
Director Julie Arnold Lisnet has Shepard not only covering the set with constant, bustling motion, she’s also airborne at times, variously climbing atop chairs and tables and stepstools reaching for objects that help illustrate her life. She shares photographs, souvenirs, diary entries and a collection of dollhouses, in which the orphaned former refugee can create the peaceful, well-ordered life she never experienced.
Stopping places along this journey are the loves in her life, starting with her first childhood romance with a boy who wooed her with information about a robin’s daily worm-eating capacity. She moves on through two failed marriages, and finally finds her third husband, a keeper named Fred Westheimer, who fully supported her transition from obscure college professor to America’s premier sexologist.
Peppered throughout the narrative are phone conversations with her two children, who clearly disapprove of Ruth’s plans to move. After she hangs up, she wryly remarks, “Sometimes when our children grow up they forget we are also adults.” She also speaks to her agent, the moving guy, whom she advises to “love your penis and bring bubble wrap!” And there’s a brief segment re-enacting her radio and TV call-in show.
“Dr. Ruth, my husband refuses to get fully naked when we make love. What should I do?”
“Tell him he is only allowed to wear a tie,” she tells the caller in her distinctive German/Israeli accent, which Shepard manages without sounding like a parody. “Not saying where he should wear it, mind you,” she adds raising an eyebrow, “just don’t tie it too tightly.”
Shepard moves us through all the trauma and triumph of Dr. Ruth’s life seamlessly; alternately making her enthralled audience, guffaw, stifle sobs or nod in recognition.
As someone who has been watching mostly TV fare these past pandemic years, I couldn’t help wishing, when the show was over, far too soon, that “Becoming Dr. Ruth” could be renewed for another season.
I mean who couldn’t use a little more of that optimism, wit, humor, enthusiasm, good sense and, well, sex in our lives?
To get some Dr. Ruth mojo into your own life, the show runs through May 22 at the Bangor Opera house. To see Jen Shepard shine at what she arguably does best, PTC offers its next “Ready, Set, Go,” May 15. Here Shepard and an ensemble of other improv artists, create — in the moment— a brand new, unscripted show using the set of the theater’s current play as the starting place. Shepard and Fingerhut also are planning to open ImprovAcadia this summer season in Bar Harbor. Huzzah!