Becoming Dr. Ruth is Great Therapy at Theaterworks
By Amy J. Barry
Dr. Ruth (born Ruth Westheimer in 1928) rapidly became a household name in the 1980s with her frank talk about sex -- opening up the conversation to what was previously a taboo subject on the airwaves. And her tiny 4 ft. 7-inch stature; unique combination of German, French, and Israeli accent; and upbeat personality, only added to her wacky charm.
But all of us who are old enough know all that. What many of us don’t know is the back-story. Who was the real woman behind the parodies, who didn’t become famous until she turned 50?
And like its title, Becoming Dr. Ruth -- that’s exactly what this beautifully crafted, one-woman play by Mark St. Germain, deftly directed by Julianne Boyd, attempts to do: paint the fuller picture of what came before fame and shaped who Dr. Ruth became.
The play stars Debra Jo Rupp (of That ‘70s Show) and takes place in 1997 in the New York City apartment that the renowned sex therapist lived in for the last 36 years, filled with boxes that she’s packing to move. Now 69 years old, she informs us that her third husband Fred died two months and six days earlier—yes, she’s counting. The third time was lucky.
Brian Prather, scenic/projections designer, enriches the production significantly with his selection of projections. As Dr. Ruth reminisces about her family of origin, her Holocaust experiences, her husbands, the building of her career, the apartment’s expansive picture window, facing a drop-dead view of the George Washington Bridge and Palisades, becomes the backdrop for a parade of memories. They range of Hitler’s Germany to family portraits to meeting Bill Clinton, and The Beatles.
Besides being slightly taller (who isn’t?) than the real Dr. Ruth, Rupp looks and plays the part with great conviction. She weaves her engaging stories, switching back and forth not only in time but in mood, from light and funny to somber and reflective. One can see the struggle on her face as she processes the difficult memories and then compartmentalizes them to return to her happy-go-lucky, almost goofy self. She talks directly to us, acknowledging our role in the play as her audience.
We learn that Dr. Ruth first was introduced to sex at 10 years old via a book that her mother hid in the bookshelf–and she, of course, found. We learn that she saw her own father taken to a work camp and that she was one of 300 Jewish children chosen go on the Kindle Transport to Switzerland andthat as badly as the children were treated by the Swiss on the other end, she knows she wouldn’t have survived otherwise.
We learn that she moved to Palestine at 17, became a sharp shooter, and lost the top of one foot when a bomb blew it off.
And that education was everything. She obtained her Masters degree as a single mother and received a PhD in education when she moved to New York, realizing her girlhood dream of becoming a doctor.
She informs us that she finally had to accept that both her parents perished in the Holocaust and that one of the reasons she became a sex therapist was compensation for the lack of human touch, having been deprived of parents at such a young age.
She shows us her collection of dollhouses with their little families and furniture and tells us, “With my dollhouses, I have the control I never had in my life. They stay where I want them to be. Happy.”
Only in one of the last scenes is her radio and TV career highlighted and we see how quickly she became at home in her new starring role.
One of the most revealing things we discover is that Dr. Ruth’s optimistic, positive nature was born before all of life’s tragedies and challenges. It came from a grandmother, whom Rupp tells us with a gleeful grin, told her “to always smile and be cheerful and trust in almighty God.”
It is this hopeful spirit that infuses the play and enhances Dr. Ruth’s remarkable story.
Becoming Dr. Ruth continues through July 14 at Theaterworks, 233 Pearl Street in downtown Hartford. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or online visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.