Talking with Washington actress Holly Twyford about the play “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” which runs from Feb. 21 to March 18 at Theater J, a lot of zigs and zags start to make themselves felt.
A much-honored actress, Twyford is wearing a relatively recent, less prolific hat for this one-woman production: director. The show is about the remarkable talk-show host who gave blunt sexual advice to millions of people over the radio and television waves, with Naomi Jacobson in the title role.
Twyford’s directing resume is nothing like her acting credits, which seem unbelievably long, excellent and varied. Making things even more treacherous is the fact that it’s a one-character play, which means that, though Twyford may be present, she is in the dark (so to speak).
You can talk about process — how things are done, and why certain things are seen and heard in different ways. Or you can talk about Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the diminutive 87-year-old doctor, philosopher, celebrity — New York and national style — Holocaust survivor and Haganah fighter and sniper. Or you can talk about two highly affecting, uniquely gifted actresses, who give a glow to Washington’s reputation for spirited, diverse and energetic theater.
Or you can talk about women, a subject that seems to rear its head in almost dizzying ways these days. “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” by playwright Mark St. Germain, is indeed about a remarkable woman (she’s expected to be on hand for one of the performances), whose life experience is tangled up in a rich tapestry.
Raised in Germany, near Mainz, she was sent to an orphanage in Switzerland as part of a Kindertransport — a rescue operation for child refugees — as the specter of the Nazis loomed. She emigrated to the British mandate in Palestine and joined the Haganah, the military branch of the Israeli state in waiting. Later, after a stay in Paris, she emigrated to the U.S., where she received a master’s degree in sociology. She worked for Planned Parenthood, then got a job giving advice on a show called “Sexually Speaking.” The rest is a certain kind of familiar history.
As many will recall, she spoke with a thick accent, dispensed advice on all sorts of sexual matters and was strong, tough, smart, intellectually probing and funny. Dear Abby she was not.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is about her life, but, in a sense, it is also about Jacobson and Twyford and their lives in the Washington theater community.
“Well, Dr. Ruth, she has lived a remarkable life, she’s just astonishing. She has our history ringing and bursting loudly through her voice,” Twyford said. “That’s not just because of the content, or her celebrity. It’s about her spirit, her courage and I think her originality. There is nobody like her.”
But there is also nobody like Jacobson, who stamps Shakespeare with her mark often, and brands just about every part she plays with a fierce approach.
“The trick is you have to see this part first as herself, then embodied by Naomi,” Twyford said. “You — meaning I as director — can’t think in terms of how I would do the part, which would be wrong.”
The more the talk turns to theater, the more memory makes itself felt. I recalled seeing Twyford in an early role at Studio Theatre in 1999. The play was called “The Steward of Christendom,” about the Irish rebellion of the previous century.
She was young but already had a stage presence hard to forget. She had (and has) a distinct voice, with a shade of rasp in it that can become anything she wants it to be.
She became part of a group of noted actors, including Ed Gero, the late Tana Hicken, with whom she appeared in Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca,” Floyd King, Sarah Marshall, Nancy Robinette and Ted Van Griethuysen.
Just talking on the phone ignites a parade of characters, including director and friend Joe Banno’s version of “Hamlet,” in which Twyford held a pistol to her head and began: “To be or not to be.”
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” will be one of the plays that bears Twyford’s still-growing directorial mark. But, with a large batch of Helen Hayes Award nominations (add two for “A Little Night Music” at Signature and “Or,” at Round House this year), her legacy as an actress is secure and still swiftly growing.