Even if you think you know everything about world-famous sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, playwright Mark St. Germain (Freud's Last Session) has put it all together in one very appealing package under the title Becoming Dr. Ruth, now playing at Theaterworks in Hartford. The fact that said pint-size package is played by Debra Jo Rupp (best known as the mother on TV's That '70s Show) is a definite plus: Rupp captures Westheimer's irrepressible ebullience as well as the tragic undercurrents that surround — and perhaps gave rise to — her greatest accomplishments.
It's a journey told in artifacts, as Westheimer, portrayed at age 69 in 1997, attempts to dismantle the cluttered Washington Heights apartment she has shared with "Husband Number Three" — "Later, we'll talk" — for 36 years.
St. Germain makes fast work of knocking down the fourth wall. Consulting on the phone with a mover (who naturally has a sexual insecurity to broach), Westheimer turns and discovers the audience. "I have guests," she announces delightedly, then proceeds to lead us on a tour of her life story, with mementos — photos, mostly, projected onto the apartment's picture window — shaping the narrative.
Very little — just a few family portraits — remains of her childhood, which ended abruptly at age ten, when her father, a German Jewish merchant, was led away by the Gestapo. She had scarcely begun to plumb the mysteries of sex, via a book hidden in her parents' closet ("Ohhhh. That's why my parents close the door at night! They wrestle with no clothes on!") when her entire world was overturned. Lovingly relinquished by her mother and grandmother, she was among the tiny fraction of children spirited away to Switzerland by the Kindertransport.
There, she and her fellow refugees were not so much nurtured as subjected to a form of indentured servitude. Little wonder that, once the war ended (and with it, any hope of finding her family, all long dead), she leaped at the chance to relocate to a kibbutz in Palestine. There, once again, she chafed at the drudgery and, while dutifully performing her assigned tasks, dreamed of a higher calling. "My grandmother had always told me I should be a kindergarten teacher," she muses retrospectively, "because I would fit so nicely in their chairs." Her thirst for learning led her to Paris, then New York, and through a master's in sociology and ultimately a doctorate in education — the latter only after she'd failed her orals twice, in part because, unlike her professor, she refused to fault the United States for lagging in response to German atrocities. "America took me in," she argued. "Without this country how do you think I'd ever be standing here today?
The portrait that emerges is of a die-hard optimist and activist. Confronted with this bouncy one-woman whirlwind, we make all sorts of interesting discoveries: e.g., how Westheimer managed to master English (her fourth language) without a single lesson; why skiers make the best lovers; and, perhaps key, the "one thing marriage…cannot bear."
The production has been tinkered with somewhat since its SRO premiere last summer as Dr. Ruth, All the Way at Barrington Stage Company under the adroit direction of BSC Artistic Director Julianne Boyd. If, as seems all but inevitable, the show wends its way to New York, it could use just a bit more tweaking. Rupp, though emotionally spot-on, doesn't seem entirely at home yet with Westheimer's sui generis accent (the Wall Street Journal dubbed her a "cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse"); she veers a bit into Baba Wawa territory. Brian Prather's set is adequate, but how much more effective it would be if all the furniture were somewhat oversized to trick us into imagining Rupp a diminutive 4'7". And maybe rethink that title? Westheimer, if anyone, would surely appreciate a playful double entendre.