Of all the reasons one might not want to see a play about Dr. Ruth Westheimer, those two surely must top the list. But if you think her pinched, pointed, high-pitched speech — with that untraceably European accent — would grate over an hour and a half, or if the idea of hearing her expound endlessly on matters of sex, sex, and more sex sounds more tedious than titillating, then you are the ideal audience for Mark St. Germain’s play Becoming Dr. Ruth, which just opened upstairs at the Westside Theatre.
Rather than settle in to the comfortable public caricature of Westheimer, St. Germain has thrown almost all of it aside to instead focus on the far more complex woman underneath. Throw in the gentle direction of Julianne Boyd and, most important, the intricate portrayal of Westheimer from Debra Jo Rupp (best known from That ‘70s Show on television), and you have a one-woman show that is far more interesting and informative than any you had a right to expect.
Not that the evening is sexless. St. Germain naturally divulges some general details about her first time (1946, on the Kibbutz in Palestine), and spices things up a bit with a few calls from the early days of her New York radio show, when fielding questions about racier topics was less common than it is now. (“Our daughter walked in on my husband and me while we were having sex on our living room floor,” runs the first one.) Her three husbands and two children, as well as a smattering of other anecdotes and advice, make the de rigueur appearances. But, overall, the play more than lives up to its title rather than its subject’s reputation.
By the time we meet her, though, the process has already long since concluded. It’s 1997, and Ruth is preparing to move from her Washington Heights apartment to a new, smaller residence in Lower Manhattan after her husband Fred’s death. She notices us and starts spinning the tale of the remarkable life she never planned on living.
After being born in 1928, the young, Jewish Karola Siegel lived in Frankfurt until she was 10, at which point the Nazis put her father into a work camp and her mother smuggled her to Switzerland. Palestine, lovers, and Husbands Number One and Two followed, eventually leading Ruth to New York City and the promise of a college degree and opportunities unavailable anywhere else. After her second marriage dissolves, she strengthens her own resolve and survives as a single mother until she meets Fred, makes a name for herself, and carves out the satisfaction and the career that eventually made her famous.
Because Becoming Dr. Ruth is ultimately about survival and adaptation, it’s more universal and even moving than it might otherwise be. Ruth’s canned advice and sage sayings (“This is not an easy decision, deciding when to have sex for the first time,” she says early on. “So many pressures, from movies, from friends, from our own bodies”) can be found anywhere, especially in the Digital Age, and bog down the swiftly moving script in unfortunate familiarity. But the story of what Westheimer overcame and how she accomplished it is a unique one that taps into something almost as elemental as our sex drive, and is more than inspiring and dramatic enough to warrant exploration on stage.
Though the cutesy framing device and its eye-rolling resolution don’t add much, St. Germain’s writing is otherwise witty and warm throughout, sharp when it needs to be, and respectful of Westheimer as a woman rather than merely a symbol of our increasingly sexualized age. Boyd’s quiet, intimate direction is just what the show needs to get into its at-the-speed-limit groove; and the set (by Brian Prather) is appropriately homey, with Daniel Brodie’s projections providing nice (if usually unnecessary) visual accompaniments to Ruth’s recollections of the most important people in her life.
As for Rupp, she’s a charmer: Though she injects plenty of fun into her performance, if anything she underplays the actual Westheimer’s vivacity. You might not want to associate the word “mother” with sex, but Rupp’s maternal take on the role defuses even the notion of camp, ensuring that this woman never comes across as sensational but always comes across as real — an impressive feat. During the more somber scenes, particularly as Ruth surveys the World War II–inspired wreckage of her family, Rupp pulls back so much that she reveals all the bruises of a broken woman who knows that nothing she’s gained can replace what she lost.
Who’d expect these moments to be the ones that would stand out most about Becoming Dr. Ruth? Regardless, they do, and they’re the best argument for seeing a show with a title suggests it will have nothing new to offer anyone. It has plenty, but its greatest contribution might just be to remind you that orgasm chit-chat is nothing — at the theatre, naked truths and stripped-down honesty are as sexy as it gets.
Becoming Dr. Ruth