Becoming Dr. Ruth
By Roz Friedman
When Dr. Ruth was a child, her grandmother always told her to smile. And she managed to do that through some very tough times.
I've just seen a perfect play. Theaterworks in Hartford is presenting Becoming Dr. Ruth; this engaging and informative and funny exploration of Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer's extraordinary life, carefully constructed by Mark St. Germain, has been on the boards there since May 31 and has been extended through July 14. If you are a theater “goer” or do not attend straight plays, only musicals, or never attend anything, run don't walk to this intimate theater on Pearl Street. I am not usually a fan of one person shows, but this excels on every level. It balances the travails of a Holocaust survivor with the comedic stories of the very same sex therapist who, despite her tiny size and funny accent, became renowned and respected. I think I was successful, because they thought I was like Sigmund Freud, says Dr. Ruth, who was born Karola Ruth Seigel.
This Barrington Stage Company production under Julianne Boyd's remarkable direction stars Debra Jo Rupp. You may only know Ms. Rupp from television where she ruled as Kitty Forman, ditzy mother of the household of “That 70's Show.” Although she has had many parts on Broadway, Off Broadway and film and TV, this is certainly her life's work! Investing the role with Dr. Ruth's persistence and sense of humor in the face of great adversity, she becomes not an imitation but a rounded recreation of this fearless woman.
When we meet the doctor, she is packing up her beautiful, cluttered NY city apartment designed by Brian Prather in order to move to the other side of town. All through the show, she fills boxes with her memorabilia, which she describes in detail. Prather is also in charge of the fine projections of place, family, friends and enemies, which are used when needed. Her two children, Joel and Miriam are calling to dissuade her, but she is intent on changing spaces. Her beloved husband, Fred, has recently died.
In short order, we find out that Dr. Ruth was born in 1928 in Westheimer, Germany. With Hitler's rise, Jews were experiencing increasing persecutions and then came Kristallnacht. When her dear father was taken away by the Nazis in a truck, Karola, an only child, then ten years old, was sent by Kindertransport to Switzerland. She never saw her family again; they were killed in a concentration camp. She was mistreated by her saviors, lost her virginity young, married three times, emigrated to Israel where she worked on a kibbutz, lived in France, struggled to get her PhD in America, and remained true to Judaism. Her fame on radio and television was really amazing. She loves responsible sex and the theater. What could be better, she asks with a flourish.
I saw Mark St Germain's first play, Forgiving Typhoid Mary, rehearsed on the grounds of the O'Neill Center during the summer of 1990; it starred Linda Hunt. Since then, he has written many plays; the last one, Freud's Last Session, inspired Becoming Dr. Ruth, which I think is his best.
Playing now through July 14 at Hartford Theaterworks. BOX OFFICE 860-527-7838
(This review originally aired on WNFR Fine Arts radio.)