|Debra Jo Rupp as Dr. Ruth Westheimer in “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” Carol Rosegg|
Debra Jo Rupp is as adorable as the woman she portrays in the eponymous one-woman show currently at the Westside Theatre in New York City.
In “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” Rupp, familiar to many for her role as Kitty Forman in “That 70s Show,” captures Ruth Westheimer’s bouncy exuberance as well as her German accent, slightly hunched shoulders, and determined gait. While this play by Mark St. Germain won’t win creative or adventurous theater awards, it’s an enjoyable and often touching visit with the famous sex therapist, whose life was much harder than her constant beaming smile would indicate.
The year is 1997, and we meet Dr. Ruth in her crowded Washington Heights apartment as she is packing to move. “We can visit while I pack,” she tells the audience. We soon learn that Fred, her third husband (“later we’ll talk,” she promises) and love of her life, has died, and she is leaving the home she’s lived in for more than 30 years. Video projections behind the realistically cozy set show the view of both the George Washington and Tappan Zee Bridges. As Dr. Ruth picks up photos of her parents and grandmother to encase in bubble wrap, she recalls her loving childhood in Frankfurt.
The play progresses in an almost uninterrupted straight line from her days as a happy toddler in Germany to her evacuation to Switzerland on a Kindertransport, to her post-war years in Israel, a short stay in Paris, and eventual arrival in New York. St. Germain, who wrote “Freud’s Last Session,” is not aiming for anything fancy. He has a great story in Westheimer’s peripatetic life, and he tells it straight.
Adored by her grandmother and father, little Karola Ruth Siegel (Dr. Ruth’s real name) grew up in a traditional German Jewish community, where learning was admired. “Always smile and be cheerful, you are loved,” her grandmother told her. All that warmth and love helped Karola overcome the trauma of leaving her family shortly after Kristallnacht, when she was 10 years old, to live in an institution in Switzerland. There was little warmth or sympathy there, and the refugee children were made to work as servants. Reading a 1941 notation from her diary, Ruth argues with God about her plight: “If You don’t think of us, I won’t think of You. Even on Your holidays.” Later in the play, Ruth picks up one of the turtles she collects and compares it to yekkes, German Jews. Like turtles, yekkes have a hard shell and move slowly, but they get where they are going, she says.
Ruth’s next stop was Palestine, where she moved to a kibbutz, changed her name, and joined the Haganah. As she roguishly explains, her sexual top popped on the kibbutz, but she has already been in love once, with a 12-year-old boy called Walter. “I thought that I was short and ugly and stupid, and that no man would be interested in me. But he was. It made me happy in a way I never felt before.”
Wounded during the War of Independence, Ruth soon married a young man from the kibbutz and moved to Paris with him. They divorced after several years; while her husband went back to Israel, Ruth used her German restitution money to sail to New York.
Although this kind of steady exposition can be deadly in a play, the audience happily follows along because Rupp gives her performance so much verve, and director Julianne Boyd keeps her moving – picking things up and putting them down, answering the phone, flirting with the audience, and other business. Boyd developed the play at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires and presented it at TheaterWorks in Hartford before this production.
Marrying and divorcing again, Ruth finds herself a young mother in New York, who must learn one more language and adjust to yet another culture. Like so many survivors, Ruth has an indomitable will and tremendous energy, qualities that help her to survive. St. Germain keeps bringing the play back to Karola’s childhood, the time when those characteristics were nurtured. Those early years gave her the foundation to build on later, yet the loss is even more profound because they lasted such a short time. There is a layer of melancholy underneath the cheeriness.
The career that would make Westheimer famous began with a job at Planned Parenthood in Harlem. It’s somewhat ironic that everyone’s favorite sex educator got her start at an agency that is now so often attacked and pilloried. American attitudes toward sex are as ambivalent as they were when Dr. Ruth answered her first question on her 15-minute radio show, “Sexually Speaking.”