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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Dr. Ruth All, the Way
By Elyse Sommer
St. Germain's bio-play about Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer has all the earmarks of another Freud's Last Session, the Barrington Stage launched 2-hander that's become a world-wide hit (Review at Barrington Stage andOff-Broadway). It is one of the most smartly constructed, superbly performed, directed and designed solo plays I've ever seen (and that includes Christopher Plummer in Barrymore and Billy Crystal starring in his own story, 700 Sundays).
The title character is, of course, best known as celebrity sex therapist Dr. Ruth. However, her life has many more facts as indicated by that "all the way." Besides a story that's interesting and inspiring, the woman who lived it is an utterly winning charmer and Ms. Rupp conveys it all — the never forgotten heartaches, the determination, the zest for life, love and learning . I dare anyone not to be totally charmed and deeply moved by the actress and the character she so entrancingly portrays.
Happily, Dr. Westheimer is very much alive and has been around to be part of the creation and rehearsal process which, besides adding a wonderful buzz to Saturday night's opening, enhances the authenticity, richness and appropriateness of this production during this season and on this stage. For starters, Dr. Westheimer's professional life makes for a good follow-up to St. Germain's imaginary visit to Dr. Sigmund Freud's office by religious philosopher/professor C.S. Lewis shortly after Freud escaped the Nazis in 1939. While young Karola Ruth Siegel also escaped via the Kindertransport, her family didn't — but she survived, first in Switzerland, later in Palestine where she lived on a Kibbutz, became an able sharpshooter (really!) and married the first of her three husbands. In addition, with Fiddler on the Roof Fiddler on the Roof concurrently at Barrington's Main Stage Berkshire theater goers have a fine opportunity to appreciate the suffering of people subjected to the inhumanity of persecution. Teyve and his Stetl neighbors, professionals like Freud, and the future Dr. Ruth' all happen to be Jewish, but their stories are universal.
To allow the play to benefit from the diminutive Dr. Ruth's outsized charisma the play has been structured so that the audience members become guests as Dr. Ruth is packing to move from her large Washington Heights apartment to a smaller apartment shortly after the death of her beloved third husband. The device of the move is ideally suited to triggering another phase of her life story with each item wrapped in plastic and put into a box.
Somehow, the fourth wall breaking direct address has none of the awkwardness that is so often a by-product of this genre. You relate to Rupp's vibrant Dr. Ruth from the moment she declares "I'm so glad you're here! This is much better than talking to myself." instantly. The telephone, a typical prop but usually involving conversations with an unseen assistant, is here used dynamically — with the same loud "Hallo" greeting not just her manager or, as she puts it, her "Minister of Communications," to someone from the moving company, advice seekers and family members.
Dynamic is also the right adjective for Julianne Boyd's direction and staging. While the basic setting by Brian Prather, who also designed Freud's Last Session, remains the cluttered living room, there's not a smidgen of stasis. The upstage window with the apartment's spectacular Hudson River view frequently gives way to projections, also by the gifted Prather, illustrating particular people and events in Dr. Ruth's ruminations. Some of these projections focus on the darker aspects of the story.
A humorous projection illustrated anecdote about the young Karola's discovery of a book about sex hidden by her parents, takes a somber turn as she explains that her parents had other things to think about and an image of Hitler replaces the the projected pictures from the book. A poignant introduction to her husband's illness, is relieved by a not entirely necessary but entertaining replay against a side wall of her interaction with Tom Chapin that was part of his album "This Pretty Planet."
Another tall man Dr. Ruth recalls fondly is Bill Clinton, though she makes it a point to mention that all the men she loved were short. What she, via Ms. Rupp, makes clear is that she loves being on stage and making people happy (Shirley Temple as illustrated with another entertaining screen replay did it by dancing and singing, Dr. Ruth it with the advice she gave to the people who came to trust the wit and wisdom by a middle aged matron with a Freudian accent.
While this could easily be a comic riff about Dr. Ruth's much quoted advice about sexual matters, this is obviously a much more rounded portrait of a woman who cherishes life and learning is packed into the play. Yet the playwright has not ignored the sound but often hilarious tidbits that made Dr. Ruth a one-of-a-kind dispenser of common sense and super frank advice for sexual happiness. When she tells us how she met her third husband on the ski slope, we also get this observation about skiing: "Good skiing is like good sex; it is all about instincts and movement and taking risks. Water skiing? That is even better. Water skiing is like a good orgasm." To paraphrase the good doctor: A really good solo play is all about the felicitous coming together of funny and serious, of story, character, acting and stagecraft. Mission accomplished on all counts in Dr. Ruth, All the Way. It's a theatrical orgasm. Don't miss it.
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