If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

“Dr. Ruth” Subject of TheaterWorks Play

It starts off as a sight gag. The first glimpse we get of Debra Jo Rupp in “Becoming Dr. Ruth”, is the top of her head. The actress is seen from behind a tower of moving boxes when she makes her entrance. Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, the diminutive, heavily-accented sex therapist from countless radio and television appearances is the subject of Mark St. Germain’s new play and Ms. Rupp -- who is actually slighter taller than Dr. Ruth’s 4 foot, 7 inches -- plays her to a fare-thee-well. This session with the good doctor is well worth the time.

Mark St. Germain has had great success with fictionalized plays based on famous people like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison (“Camping with Henry and Tom”) and, more recently, Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis (“Freud’s Last Session”). “Becoming Dr. Ruth” came about after St. Germain was advised to check out Westheimer’s biography, “All In A Lifetime”, and discovered there was a lot more to this little German woman with the funny accent than her talk show appearances would indicate.

Dr. Ruth’s upbringing would rival the most colorful of any Dickensian character. Separated from her parents by the Nazis when she was 10-years-old, young Ruth was shipped to Sweden as part of the kindertransport program that placed Jewish children with adopted parents. In Sweden Ruth was treated more like a servant and was told she would never see her parents again both having presumably been lost in the concentration camps. In short order she soon worked on a kibbutz, became a sharp-shooter for the Israeli army, survived a bombing that left her temporarily paralyzed, married three men and had two children all before she became famous for talking about sex.

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” began life last season at Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage Company where St. Germain wrote the play specifically for Debra Jo Rupp, perhaps best known as the ditsy mom in television’s “That ‘70s Show”. Although she hasn’t quite mastered that particular accent that everyone knows, Rupp is a life force on stage enveloping you with her outsized personality, her heart and her humanity. Under Julianne Boyd’s graceful direction, she never hurries moments or unduly milks a sad memory. Her timing is impeccable and she can move you to tears with a tender pause and then have you laughing a moment later. This is a wonderful, fully-felt and lived-in performance, one that hopefully will be remembered at next year’s Connecticut Critics Circle awards.

A series of projections are handily provided by scenic designer Brian Prather giving shape and substance to the story. Augmented by actual photos of Dr. Ruth’s family members, there are also archival pictures from the war years that serve as a vivid reminder of her tragic past. St. Germain does a great job of giving us Ruth’s history out of chronological order which keeps the story surprising and suspenseful. The play, which runs a little over 90 minutes without intermission, did seem to hit a lull at the 80-minute mark, but quickly recovered without much harm. There may be some slight trimming to do before its ultimate journey to off-Broadway and Ms. Rupp is certainly more than ready. In the words of Dr. Ruth herself, “Terrific!”

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” has already been extended through July 17 at TheaterWorks in Hartford. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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