Dr. Ruth, All the Way
Debra Jo Rupp gives a thoroughly engaging performance as sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer in Mark St. Germain's sometimes fascinating bioplay.
Fortunately, the combination of Dr. Ruth's fascinating life, the thoroughly engaging performance of Debra Jo Rupp, and Julianne Boyd's fine direction come together to create a worthwhile -- if slightly overlong -- evening of entertainment.
The play's set-up, even more artificial than many works of this genre, has the audience magically appearing in Dr. Ruth's Washington Heights apartment as she is packing up to move, two months after the death of her beloved third husband, Fred, in 1997. As she finds photographs and mementos, Dr. Ruth shares memories of not only their life together -- they were married for over 35 years -- but her entire, extremely eventful existence.
While we may all know Dr. Ruth as one of the first people to talk about contraception and sexual satisfaction on radio and television -- a point that St. Germain duly covers -- her back story is what gives the work its spine. Raised in Frankfurt, Germany, Ruth -- born Karola Siegel -- had her life turned upside down after her father, Julius, was sent to a work camp by the Nazis in 1938. She was later "saved," by being sent to Wartheim, a quasi-orphanage in Switzerland, where life was hard for the children and she began to develop the survival skills that guided her throughout the rest of her life.
Indeed, by play's end, it's hard not to practically wallow in admiration for Dr. Ruth, who later survived a bombing in Israel that cut off part of her foot; came to America without speaking English yet later earned a Ph.D.; and lived briefly as a single mother doing menial jobs to support her and her daughter, Miriam -- all the while supposedly maintaining the ever-sunny disposition that her maternal grandmother urged her to show the world.
St. Germain would have been wiser to eliminate the unnecessary phone calls that are clearly intended to break up the piece's monologue-like structure, but just add length to the two-hour-plus work. The work also slips now and then into uncomfortable sentimentality, although St. Germain smartly knows when to put on the brakes before we drown in it.
For her part, Boyd tries to avoid a feeling of statis by interjecting a handful of projections (by set designer Brian Pather) -- including one where Rupp sings a ditty of the mating of various species alongside Tom Chapin via video. There's also a segment towards the play's end which recreates Dr. Ruth's first radio show, which (unsurprisingly) had a few minutes of dead air before someone had the courage to call in with a question.