Did you know that America’s favorite sex therapist fled Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport, briefly worked as a sniper in Jerusalem as a teen and was wounded in an explosion during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war? Holly Twyford and Naomi Jacobson certainly didn’t before they signed on as the director and the star, respectively, of “Becoming Dr. Ruth” at Theater J. The one-woman show depicts a 69-year-old Dr. Ruth Westheimer on a day in 1997 as she reminisces about her life before she found fame doling out sex advice on syndicated radio and TV shows. Twyford and Jacobson, who’ve worked together in D.C. theater for more than 20 years, agreed they would tackle Mark St. Germain’s play about this funny, formidable woman only if they could team up. “We both sort of said, ‘I’m not doing this without you,’ ” Jacobson says.
How has your understanding of Dr. Ruth changed as you’ve worked on the show?
Naomi Jacobson: I think the cheerfulness and the joy that she finds in life is in direct proportion to the pain and loss that she experienced. Whatever happens to her, she willfully just makes it a positive experience. It’s a need to offset the depth of what she experienced as a young person. It seems very real to me, that her way to survive is to move forward and accept and invite and embrace and champion life.
It’s a therapy for her, as well.
Jacobson: When she was first famous, she wouldn’t talk about her past in interviews for a very long time.
Holly Twyford: I wonder if she didn’t talk about it because she didn’t want to take attention away from what she was doing. She waited until she was not an everyday figure to talk about it.
Jacobson: You know, there’s a line in the show that we grappled with, which was “It’s good to be Dr. Ruth.” My coming at it was that it’s not narcissistic at all: She has created a construct, this person who’s doing good in the world. And it’s a good thing.
Twyford: [Naomi,] it’s amazing, what you’ve just said is right on the intention of the play, about her discovery in a way of welcoming and accepting …
Jacobson: … all of who she is. And it’s been good for me to do, because, man, any time I decide to have a tiny little meltdown in my life, I’m like, “Really? You’re playing Dr. Ruth. You’re really going to get upset about THAT?” It’s been a great wake-up call to become aware of what other people are dealing with in this world and how lucky we are to be where we are.
Twyford: You know, she says she’s a survivor. She’s not just a survivor. She’s so much more. In the play, she talks about a Hebrew expression, “tikkun olam.” And what it means is “repair the world.” It’s sort of a calling.
Jacobson: It’s kind of a Jewish thing, it’s part of you.
Twyford: She got out of Frankfurt, Germany, and her parents did not and her grandmother did not. And she went to Palestine and survived the Arab-Israeli war. Then she didn’t just go about her life; she decided, “How can I help? What can I do to make things better?” It’s very inspirational.
Naomi, how do you toe the line between staying true to Ruth’s giant personality and becoming a parody?
Jacobson: I’m much too tall to play this part. Well, the line [in the play] is “I’m too tall and too young.” Which I don’t get to say very often. I’m 5-foot-3 — and old! She’s 4-foot-7. I do feel an obligation to a certain extent — I mean, I’m not gonna imitate her. I’m gonna get the accent right. I feel a little bit of an obligation to give people a little bit of a giggle. And then once I’ve done that, I want to just release that and give an essence. I don’t want to be hindered by “Everything has to be funny.”
Twyford: They’ll get some laughs for sure, but it’s a person’s life story, so there’s bound to be incredibly low lows.
Yeah, who would describe their life story entirely as a comedy?
Jacobson: And who would want to watch that? Would you want to see a caricature of Dr. Ruth for an hour and 15 minutes?
No way. I hear Dr. Ruth is coming to see this production. Is there anything you want to say to her?
Twyford: I guess I would like to say, “Thank you. I think you’re an incredible inspiration to a lot of people, and thank you for a lot of really good things in the world.”
Jacobson: I just want to hug her. I rarely get to hug someone shorter than I am.
Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW; through March 18, $30-$69.