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On portraying an icon: Jen Shepard talks PTC’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth”

May 4, 2022
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BANGOR – What does it mean to take to the stage and portray a real person? How does one capture the essence of a cultural figure while still making the performance one’s own? And what if there’s no one up on that stage to help you find your way?

This is the dilemma facing Jen Shepard as she prepares to take the stage for Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of the one-woman show “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” written by Mark St. Germain and directed by Julie Lisnet. The show goes into previews on May 5, with opening night set for May 7; it runs through May 22 at the Bangor Opera House.

It’s the life story of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who many of us probably remember as one of the first sex-positive television personalities out there. Her diminutive stature and engaging accent made her a popular figure in pop culture – particularly in her heyday – but there’s so much more to the woman than the smiling sex therapist so many of us remember. Dr. Ruth’s is a life richly lived – one more than worthy of being brought to light onstage.

As you might imagine, a character like this – and a show like this – presents a number of interesting challenges for a performer. Shepard sat down with me to discuss those challenges, as well as what drew her to the role and what the process has been like in bringing this show to life.

It all started a surprisingly long time ago.

“When the play was first listed as part of the season, when Bari [Newport, former artistic director] was still here, she was talking about it,” Shepard said. “Bari said that she was going to ask another actress to play the part and I said ‘That person’s too tall.’ Bari asked who I thought it should be and I said ‘Well … me.’”

It wasn’t as easy as all that, however, with Newport saying that Shepard was too young for the part, as well as more oriented toward comedic performance.

“I told her, ‘I can do more than that.’”

Newport was resistant to the idea, but Shepard convinced her to give her an audition.

“I prepared a three-page sample of the script, came in, did the audition. They watched me and said goodbye. Ten minutes later, Bari called and told me the part was mine.”

It’s clear that Shepard wanted the part badly. My next question was: why?

“What drew me to it, I just thought it would be a great challenge for me, a good stretch,” she said. “And I always liked Dr. Ruth. I found her funny and charming and interesting. But after I read the script, I realized just what an incredible this story was to bring to the stage.

“We always go on about ‘It’s a privilege’ and ‘It’s an honor,’ but in this case, it really truly is. Not that it wasn’t before, but it’s just different, knowing the responsibility of playing a real-life person. One who is still alive. She’s so incredible to me – 95 and still working and still there.”

One of the specific challenges that comes with a part like this one is to evoke a person who is likely, at least to a certain extent, familiar to the audiences who will see the show. Dr. Ruth was a prominent figure in the culture for an extended period of time, after all. Shepard spoke to some of those challenges as well.

“Even if they haven’t seen her lately, people remember Dr. Ruth,” she said. “And they may have seen her pretty recently – she’s on ‘Ellen,’ she goes on with Howard Stern, she’s out there. So the challenge becomes that someone can hold me right up next to her and make that direct comparison.”

Shepard went deeper, describing the script as a gift that allows the performer to gain much needed perspective onto the person being portrayed.

“The script is a shaped transcript, I would say, of conversations that [St. Germain] had with her,” she said. “And it’s a little deceptive, because when you read it, it seems really simple. But when you get inside of it, you realize that it is carefully crafted to bring you to these monumental emotional moments, only to lift you out right afterward.”

But while Shepard credits the script, she also believes that the spirit of Dr. Ruth herself is a big part of what makes the narrative resonate.

“She is such a life force and such a joyful person. She has for her whole life looked outside of herself. So creating the character based on that constant desire for connection and human relationship, that’s what makes it easy to keep it away from caricature. That emotional hook.”

And in case you’re wondering, Shepard has given plenty of thought to that accent – a German-French-Israeli-American accent, mind you – and has been working hard with dialect coaches in an effort to find the sweet spot, even as she acknowledges that such an amalgamation is, in Shepard’s words, “super forgiving.”

Now, this show has been on the PTC docket for a long time. It was originally scheduled to be a part of the 2019-2020 season; in fact, it would have been the very next show to grace the Opera House stage before the circumstances of the pandemic shut everything down. And now, almost exactly two years after that initial scheduling, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” has arrived. Of course, that kind of gap presents its own set of issues for a performer.

“In 2020, I had learned all but the last five pages,” said Shepard. “I had started working on the script in December of 2019. But I actually think in a weird way it has been an advantage, because I’ve thought about it so much. I’ve re-read the script, I’ve watched documentaries and countless YouTube clips.

“So coming back to the script this time, I really found it to be just as accessible,” she continued. “I realized that I still remembered a lot of the script. Really, I just kept thinking about it; the character was never far from my thoughts. And I’ve lived with this show for a LONG time – years, really – so the connection has stayed with me.”

Again, Jen Shepard has been waiting a long time to become Dr. Ruth. And now – finally – area audiences will have a chance to see for themselves.

"A lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained.” – Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 May 2022 07:13

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