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A CurtainUp Review
Becoming Dr. Ruth
By Elyse Sommer
Mark St. Germain's solo play based on the eventful life of Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, the undersized sex educator with the oversized personality and wit had its premiere at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires — at their second stage named for St. Germain whose previous small bio-drama, Freud's Last Session , also premiered in Pittsfield and became an international hit.
While the play has changed its title from the original Dr. Ruth All the Way to Becoming Dr. Ruth, it has now come all the way to New York, along with Barrington Stage's founder and artistic director Julianne Boyd again at the helm with her original crafts team. The venue is larger so gone is the homey business of having Dr. Ruth handing out bags of pretzels. Debra Jo Rupp is better than ever. In fact, if there's any problem about this solo play going all the way around the world as Freud's Last Session did, it's that Rupp is so good that it will be hard to replace her (though she does have an understudy, Anne O'Sullivan).
Ms. Boyd and Mr. St. Germain are both good listeners who are willing to heed criticism as well as praise. As a result, the current production is sharper and trimmer at 140 minutes without an intermission. An additional nip and tuck would have been even better but I'm quibbling. The unnecessary comic business has been eliminated and the poignancy of Dr. Ruth's ever present memory of the parents and grandmother she lost to the Holocaust heightened — along with her sense of obligation to live fully for the one million five hundred thousand children who did not survive.
The curtain you first see when you take your seat at the West Side Theater features projections of more than a dozen covers of the books in which the 4'7" sex therapist dispensed her wit and wisdom. That image seems to point to a play focusing on the celebrity persona most people associate with Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer. But as soon as that curtain rises to reveal the spacious Washington Heights apartment where our title character is packing up her belongings in preparation for a move to another neighborhood, it becomes clear that this is not a comic riff on an unlikely celebrity but a smartly realized, well paced and staged play even though it has just one character. That said, a format like this can only accommodate well-chosen highlights so don't expect a fully detailed biography.
Though Mr. St. Germain is not a Holocaust survivor, unlike so many biographers he didn't have to visit a lot of libraries. His subject is very much alive and kicking at age 85 and was involved throughout the idea to page to stage process which contributed greatly to the genuineness of the material.
Since, the play is essentially the same as the one I saw at Barrington Stage, some of what follows includes bits and pieces from my original review. Typical of the solo genre the playwright turns the audience into the actor's co-stars and makes much use of the telephone is a plot detailing device. Mr. St. Germain uses this prop quite dynamically — with the same loud "Hallo" greeting someone from the moving company, various advice seekers and family members.. And he provides a nice filip to connect the player with the audience by having her turn to us and invite us to visit with her. The move, prompted by the need for a change after the death of her beloved third husband is a handy way to get into her story. As soon as Rupp's vibrant Dr. Ruth declares "I'm so glad you're here! This is much better than talking to myself" you're hooked into liking her.
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.
The tense and especially heart wrenching moments, like the arrest of her father on Kristalnacht are leavened by recollections of Westheimer's (then Siegel) first romance while in Switzerland as part of a Kindertransport group. The pictures and other mementos she holds up before bubble wrapping them are also projected so the audience can really see them. Nice touch. The too large to wrap memorabilia includes her collection of dollhouses. You don't need Dr. Freud to understand their symbolism.
Dynamic is not only the right adjective for Rupp's Dr.Ruth but for Julianne Boyd's direction and staging. While the setting by Brian Prather, who also designed Freud's Last Session, remains the cluttered living room, the staging neatly avoids the stasis common to solo performances. 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.
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 in image of Hitler replaces the the projected pictures from the book.
The many well known people Dr. Ruth has met include a favorite tall man, 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 projected video image did it by dancing and singing, Dr. Ruth does it with the advice she gave to the people who came to trust the advice of the middle aged matron with a Freudian accent.
As I've already said, this is not a stand-up comedy style take on Dr. Ruth's much quoted advice about sexual matters, but a well rounded portrait of a woman who cherishes life and learning. Yet sex is very much part of all her recollections and there are some hilarious examples of the 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 in making Becoming Dr. Ruth the theatrical equivalent of good skiing.
Postscript: If you'd like to meet the real Dr. Ruth, you might want to get a ticket for a Wednesday night performance (October 30, November 6, 13, 20 and December 18) when Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer will be on hand to discuss the play and to give you a chance to ask t your own questions.