Becoming Dr. Ruth

by Stu Brown

Who is Dr. Ruth? Is she just the diminutive cultural icon with a ubiquitous presence on TV talk shows promoting sex education to the masses? Or is there a more complex, layered woman beyond her public persona? In Becoming Dr. Ruth, the one-woman show starring Debra Jo Rupp at Hartford’s Theaterworks thru July 14th, we learn a great deal about the fascinating experiences, struggles, and triumphs this octogenarian has led.

Playwright Mark St. Germain has crafted an entertaining, fact-filled production that never becomes boring or mundane. While there has been a tremendous amount of sadness during Ruth Westheimer’s lifetime, St. Germain always follows up a melancholy or sorrowful passage with an amusing anecdote or story, which brings laughter and a smile to the audience.

The show is structured with the character of Dr. Ruth speaking directly to the audience, breaking down the fourth wall between actor and theatergoers. We are described as her guests. The concept works perfectly for the small, intimate setting of the Theaterworks performance space. The audience does feel as if they are sitting in her cluttered living room as she packs up the memory-filled apartment, all the time talking, reminiscing, joking and, yes, occasionally dolling out sex-laden advice. Scenic/Projections Designer Brian Prather and Director Julianne Boyd have seamlessly incorporated rear screen projections to visually amplify pictures and mementos that Dr. Ruth lovingly shares with the audience.

Actress Debra Jo Rupp, a stage veteran who took an eight-year hiatus to star in the television series, That ‘70s Show, gives a tour de force performance as the effusive and sprightly Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Rupp doesn’t impersonate the former member of the Haganah (the Jewish underground), but embodies her very essence. She is Dr. Ruth. The actress conveys a broad range of emotions and sentiments as she relates Dr. Ruth’s journey, which in the play begins soon after Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany and ends as fame and notoriety engulfs her. In addition to her acting skills give kudos to Rupp and Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis for engendering the doctor’s very recognizable German accent.

Director Julianne Boyd, who first helmed the show last summer at the Berkshires’ Barrington Stage Company, knows both the material and actress well. In staging a one-person show the danger is for the actor to overly lecture or directly impart information to the audience. A skillful director will be able to balance the need to convey the text while at the same time dramatizing the material. Boyd astutely accommodates both needs to deliver a highly satisfying production.

Becoming Dr. Ruth -- a theatrical experience to savor -- at Theaterworks in Hartford thru July 14th.



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