|Debra Jo Rupp. Photo:Lanny Nagler|
By Lauren Yarger
Everyone knows Ruth Westheimer, the short, German-accented pioneering sex therapist who took America’s radio waves and TV by storm in the 1980s. Her tragic personal story and how she went about Becoming Dr. Ruth are less known, however, until now with this one-woman show starring Debra Jo Rupp (That 70ʼs Show) at TheaterWorks in Hartford.
Playwright Mark St. Germain (Freud’s Last Session) sets the story in Ruth’s New York apartment as she prepares to move following the death of her husband, Fred. She packs up her belongings – and memories – as she chats with the audience. Brian Prather designs the set, along with projections that help the audience see the photos she gazes at before packing them away.
There are photos of her parents, from whom the young Karola Ruth Siegel was separated during the rise of Hitler in Germany. When her father is taken to a work camp shortly after Kristallnacht, 10-year-old Karola’s mother and grandmother secure her a seat on the Kindertransport to get her out of Germany. In Switzerland, she is forced to work long days in domestic service under the supervision of a harsh matron at an orphanage where her only hope comes from Shirley Temple movies and occasional letters from her parents -- until they stop coming.
After the war (her parents apparently were murdered in the camps), Karola travels to Palestine where she becomes a scout and sniper with the Haganah, a precursor to the Israeli Defense Forces. Her feet are severely injured in an explosion during the war for Israel’s independence and she struggles to learn to walk again. She also fears no one will ever want to marry her.
She does marry. Three times, actually. The first two marriages end in divorce. Her two children (with whom she chats on the phone while packing up the Washington Heights apartment) think she might be rushing to make this this move so soon after Fred’s death.
She continues sharing her memories – she eventually had settled in New York where she taught herself English by reading True Confessions magazine and earned degrees in sociology and education.
In the 1960s, while she is working for Planned Parenthood, Ruth is asked to speak to a group of New York broadcasters about the need for sex education. One station offers her the opportunity to do a 15-minute broadcast each week called “Sexually Speaking” and suddenly the 50+ woman is a sensation. Speaking plainly about sex and answering questions from callers, “Dr. Ruth” becomes a celebrity and one of America’s foremost authorities on sexual behavior.
Rupp is a delight as the dynamic Ruth, whose effervescent love for life never is eclipsed by her harsh circumstances. Director Julianne Boyd, artistic director at Barrington Stage where the play received its world premiere as Dr. Ruth All the Way, uses some effective pauses to bring home the impact of Hitler’s rise to power and of Fred’s death. The triumph of Ruth’s spirit is visual.
Rupp’s power-house performance captures Ruth so effectively and in such detail, that we’re convinced the much shorter, German accented woman must really be on stage. (On opening night reality suspended the illusion, however, when at the curtain call, Rupp introduced the real Dr. Ruth who was seated in the audience.)
Rupp’s performance also is aided by having an interesting script to interpret. St. Germain keeps his monologue from becoming just a long history lesson by having Ruth speak directly with the audience and by interjecting some conversations between the sex therapist and her callers (sound design by Jessica Paz) toward the end of the play which runs about 90 minutes without intermission.
Becoming Dr. Ruth has been extended through July 14 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pear lSt., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Weekend Matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets $17-$63: (860) 527-7838; www.theaterworkshartford.org.