The Winnipeg Jewish Theatre (WJT) began its season at the end of October with Mark St. Germain’s didactic play Becoming Dr. Ruth.
The timing of the play coincidentally aligned with the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, yet Winnipeg theatregoers showed their support for the WJT by filling the seats of the Berney Theatre.
Mariam Bernstein’s performance as Dr. Karola Ruth Siegel in this single-performer play did away with the sombre ambience.
The WJT’s artistic director Ari Weinberg saw Bernstein as the perfect candidate for the role as the play aims to celebrate the pleasures that life has to offer.
Her wittiness and focus captured the contrasting dynamics of both joy and poignancy present in the play.
Dr. Ruth, as a young Jewish girl, fled Nazi Germany, later becoming an American icon of sex education.
She may often be remembered as a petite grandmotherly figure who had radio show and television appearances about sex education.
However, Germain’s play Becoming Dr. Ruth depicts a character whose monologue reveals a very different reality.
Debbie Patterson, director of the WJT’s rendition of the play, gave more insight into Ruth’s life.
“The play is about Ruth packing up her apartment that she’s lived in for over 30 years, in order to move to a new apartment,” said Patterson.
“You can tell she doesn’t really want to move, but she’s packing everything up — we’re not sure why she’s moving.”
The audience is given an account of her rescue as a Kindertransport passenger as she left Nazi Germany.
The play proceeds to recount her major life events, putting a rifle in her hands as the audience is briefed on her years as a sniper for the Haganah, the Jewish military force during Israel’s War of Independence.
Ksenia Broda-Milian, the set designer of the play, creates a visual representation of Ruth’s emotional unburdening by scattering her packed belongings across the stage, a literal expression of relief.
“It is clear as you watch it that she’s not dealing with the grief,” she said.
“She’s just running away and that she has to run away because to deal with this grief of this husband that she’s lost, she’s finding that she’s unearthing the grief of losing both her parents and her grandmother […] in the Holocaust.”
Early on in the play, the audience is incorporated into the performance. While busy packing, Ruth notices the audience and welcomes them as her guests.
“Her audience becomes her best friend, a guest in her home,” Patterson said.
Furthermore, a significant aspect of the play is the use of objects, in particular her dollhouses and music box, as symbols connecting her to her lost family and childhood.
For instance, it is through Ruth’s keeping of the dollhouses that the audience is held privy to her deep attachment to her loved ones.
“The dollhouses that she has now are her way of keeping the family safe,” said Patterson.
Bernstein’s uplifting performance, in spite of the day’s dismal atmosphere on account of the Pittsburgh shooting, was a heartening reminder to rise above trauma.