Dr. Ruth, All the Way
Remember? Ruth Westheimer was the tiny, cute, audacious, irreverent sex therapist whose radio and television splashes a few decades ago were all the rage. True enough, the actual Ruth, 4' 7" and now 84 years of age, still is. Perhaps she isn't quite so visible but she certainly was during the opening Sunday matinee as she schmoozed with patrons in the theater lobby before witnessing Rupp's warmhearted and spot-on portrayal.
The play is about Westheimer's extraordinary life and is inclusive of her famous colloquial and advisory hints for the masses: sex help sessions. St. Germain, however, brings forth a more riveting story and one which began when Dr. Ruth was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1928. She was actually selected as one of relatively few Jewish youngsters who were able to go to Switzerland via Kinderstransport. Her parents were tragic victims, in Auschwitz, of the Holocaust. During her middle teenage years, she was on an Israeli Kibbutz and became a deadeye military sniper. Marrying for the first time, she moved to France before she would divorce, get married again, and come to New York. In all, she wed three times. Her religion, throughout, remained of great import to her. This life has been filled with doses of sadness and genuine joy; St. Germain's play focuses upon Westheimer's responses to her circumstances.
The play opens and here is Ruth, in 1997, packing up her apartment (where she and beloved husband Fred lived) which is situated toward the northern end of Manhattan: she has views of both the George Washington and Tappan Zee Bridges. Boxes have been stuffed and Ruth, in the person of Rupp, reflects upon her emotional times gone by. Every so often, she chimes in with sexual counsel. A suggestion for one individual with a specific (unnamed here) problem: try whipped cream or chocolate sauce. Dr. Ruth was never shy with a recommendation and she is not here.
St. Germain's expressive and audience-friendly script is not principally about sex. Instead, it provides multi-dimensional insights and enables everyone to experience the varied, sometimes tumultuous life of an appealing, direct woman.
Rupp is a revelation. The actress prepped by watching a multitude of Dr. Ruth video clips. Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis helped perfect the combination of German, Israeli and French which flavors Ruth's American accent. The set and some media projections (developed and coordinated by Brian Prather) add both tone and content. A precious music box and Westheimer's favorite doll as well as volumes of books are strategically utilized.
One marvels at the playwright's ability to synthesize, distill and formulate a virtual monologue which fully (and complete with idiosyncrasies) sustains throughout. The author's specialty brings historical relationships and/or personages to live stage. With Dr. Ruth, he zeroes in, for example, upon a troubled time and then might provide comic relief with an anecdote. The transitions, with Boyd facilitating, are always smooth.
Back to Debra Jo Rupp, who has appeared on and off Broadway, several times for Barrington Stage, and at many theaters in the Berkshires. Western Massachusetts, for her, is home turf. With a few hundred television and film credits to her name, she immediately becomes an irresistible Dr. Ruth. Five inches taller than the actual Westheimer, the performer still considers herself to be on the short side. Rupp's dynamic and yet nuanced performance is fully based upon the actress' ability to understand the real and very much still vital Dr. Ruth. Ruth Westheimer is a woman of enormous compassion who does not deny the traumatic events of her life but whose will is triumphant. Rupp captures and displays her essence.
Dr. Ruth, All the Way continues at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through July 21st. For tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.
- Fred Sokol