I bet you never realized that Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the diminutive, internationally renowned sex therapist, was once a sniper in the Israeli Haganah, the forerunner to the Israeli Defense Forces. This unbelievable fact is one of many that emerge in Mark St. Germain's Becoming Dr. Ruth, a loving biographical play at the Westside Theatre, starring the great Debra Jo Rupp in the title role.
Directed by Julianne Boyd, this 100-minute solo show comes to New York City from Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts, where it premiered in 2012 under the title Dr Ruth, All the Way. That version certainly felt like it went all the way and then some, clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours with an intermission and leaving no stone unturned in its exploration of Westheimer's life, from her early years as a child refugee of the Holocaust to her rise to fame in America as a pioneering radio host.
The shortened version off-Broadway moves swimmingly, but the new length comes at a small price. While we learn all about Westheimer's upbringing and youth, her meteoric ascent to media stardom is barely touched upon. Perhaps that's why the title has been changed — we see what it took to become "Dr. Ruth," but little else about what it's like to actually be "Dr. Ruth." Fortunately, we have Rupp, best known for her work as the dotty Kitty Forman on TV's That '70s Show, as our guide. Rupp is an ultra-delightful, captivating performer who finds the true essence of the real-life Ruth and brings her to life onstage.
The conceit is a nifty one: Ruth is packing up her apartment, designed with a pack-rat's eye for detail by Brian Prather, as she prepares to move following the death of her husband, Fred. She immediately invites the audience in to help her go through boxes, coming across token after token that brings about a new memory. There is the music box that plays the song her parents used to sing her before she was taken to Switzerland on the kindertransport and lost them to the Holocaust. There's the photo of her daughter, who she struggled to raise as a single mother while working to earn her various degrees.
You get the idea. With a playful German-French-Hebrew accent and a floral print shirt (costumes by Jennifer Moeller), Rupp, too, becomes Dr. Ruth, and while you know you're not watching the real person, this facsimile is as spot-on as Mary Bridget Davies' Janis Joplin a few avenues away. But it's no caricature. Rupp captures both the sadness, stemming from the young child, then called Karola Ruth Siegel, who loses her parents to Hitler's slaughter, and the inherent jubilation that comes from at last finding family for whom she had always searched. It's an affecting performance that, more than anything else, captures the essence of the real person. And that's more than any mere imitation can offer.
Even with the qualms about length, St. Germain has crafted an enjoyable tribute to a figure of popular culture who truly deserves it — one whose life has been dedicated to helping and educating others. If you thought you knew all about Dr. Ruth, the woman, the myth, the legend, you might just be mistaken.