Opening nights at Theater J are always buzzy. With an audience filled with high-roller supporters and machers in the Jewish community, along with long-time, loyal subscribers and friends of the production crew and actors, the air is always electric. And then a burst of applause welcomes artistic director Adam Immewahr as he bounds on stage for the curtain speech, before the show.
“How cool is this?” he crowed. “It is so great to be back … and to share a story of resilience, hope and joy.”
That story would be the bio-play “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” detailing the back story of the petit German Jewish refugee who would be come America’s favorite sex therapist, with radio and television shows, special appearances on late night TV and, now, an active Twitter account.
This past week, as Theater J opened its doors for the first time since March 15, 2020, the welcome was especially warm and sincere.
Live performance — theater, music and dance — have had a particularly difficult time over the past 20 months. We’ve learned to live with social distancing, but how does one do that safely and comfortably, backstage, onstage and in the audience? Last week’s reopening was both propitious and carefully conceived.
Like Broadway and professional theaters in New York and those in the Washington region, the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, home of Theater J, requires proof of vaccine to enter the building. If a patron is unable to be vaccinated, a negative PCR test result is necessary.
Immerwahr also reported that the center has installed a dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS), which means that 100 percent of the air circulating in the theater is vented in from outside. “We have fresh air galore,” he said.
While ticket sales aren’t as brisk as pre-COVID, “We’re selling seats every night. We want to be here and ready whenever you want to return and when you’re ready to come back, we’ll welcome you with open arms,” Immerwahr said, speaking to the hypothetical ticket buyer.
In fact, for those still cautious about sitting next to strangers, the theater has scheduled a select number of socially distanced nights where not every seat will be sold.
The season opener, “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” was a hit during 2017-18 season, and it feels like the perfect vehicle to welcome audiences back. Actor Naomi Jacobson has been beloved on Theater J’s stage for more than 15 years. In the guise of the feisty, German-accented Jewish grandmother, she is effervescent and nearly flawless. As she enters a Manhattan apartment with its grand vistas and stacks of moving boxes, Jacobson is non-plussed, pleased in fact in the guise of Dr. Ruth, to have an audience.
At the line, spoken to the audience, “I’m so glad you’re here …” an audible sigh of agreement and applause rang forth, this was for many in the audience their first time back at a live performance since the pandemic shut down theaters. And their appreciation showed at the end with a long and rousing standing ovation.
MaryBeth Wise of Silver Spring said, “How wonderful it is to see people and we’re so excited to be back in a theater environment,” nodding to her friend Brian McMonagle of the District. He noted that as all the patrons were fully masked and proof of vaccine was required, he felt comfortable.
Joan Eklund of Centreville, Va., was ecstatic to attend a live show after 18 months of isolation with virtual-only options. In fact, she said she specifically received her booster shot in order to feel comfortable.
Her friend, dance teacher and former actor Darren Marquardt of Alexandria, added, “We’re thrilled that theaters have opened up and we can see live actors on stage again. We’ve missed it so much.”
As for the performance, Jacobson was incandescent as Dr. Ruth, reminiscing on her idyllic pre-Holocaust childhood, when she walked with her father to synagogue with just a few coins so he could buy her an ice cream cone. And later we hear about her separation from her parents who sent her on a Kindertransport to Switzerland. There in a hard, cold orphanage, she had her first boyfriend and grew into a young adult. Playwright Mark St. Germain has captured the effervescent determination Dr. Ruth has acculturated, despite the trauma of losing her family and her home, being wounded as a Haganah soldier in pre-state Israel, where she served as a sniper, and immigrating to the United States with no money or support system. Married three times, she raised two children and earned her Ph.D.
Jacobsen unpacks the boxes of Dr. Ruth’s life as she unpacks those piled on stage. With both the doctor’s trademark tee-hee-hee giggle and her more sobering recollections of her past losses and regrets, this is a richly shaded rendering of the woman who, for a time, was everyone’s advice-giving Jewish bubbe. In this second outing as Dr. Ruth, Jacobson has perfected her portrait under the equally insightful direction of Holly Twyford. While as a one-woman show, it’s not an expansive play, Dr. Ruth’s life story, which reveals itself in a brisk 95 minutes, covers a broad swath of 20th-century Jewish history from Europe to Israel to the United States.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth,” while perhaps a safe choice, during still perilous times for Theater J — and all theaters — felt like the right show to re-start the theater-going habit. As theater-goer Wise said, “Being in the same room at the same time with a community of people is so important. I feel that the relationship [between performers and audience] is sacred.”
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is on stage through Oct. 24 at the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater of the Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 202-777-3210 or visit https://theaterj.org/ for tickets and information. All visitors to the DCJCC must show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test and must wear masks covering the nose and mouth.