Friday, November 8, 2013

Becoming Dr. Ruth

Debra Jo Rupp is a pint-sized powerhouse playing a pint-sized powerhouse in Mark St. Germain’s funny and loving new one-woman biographical play, Becoming Dr. Ruth, at the Westside Theatre Upstairs. For 90 minutes with no intermission the audience is entertained by a great storyteller who is also part standup comic.

St. Germain has developed an effective way for Dr. Ruth Westheimer to tell the story of her remarkable life while avoiding the pitfall of the blah, blah, blah boredom that these let-me-tell-you-my-story plays often descend into. We find the renowned sex therapist in the living room of her cluttered Washington Heights apartment in 1997, two months after the death of her third husband who has died from complications of a stroke, ending her third marriage, the one that lasted for decades rather than years like the previous two.

Cardboard boxes are everywhere as she packs to move out of her longtime home. (Great set by Brian Prather.) Different items prompt memories, which she shares with the audience as if we were guests seated around the room. Under Julianne Boyd’s direction and with Rupp’s effervescence, one tale follows quickly upon another, aided by Daniel Brodie’s projections in what is Dr. Ruth’s window with its view of the George Washington and Tappan Zee bridges, which reappears in present-time moments.

At this stage in her life, even while packing, she’s a celebrity. When the mover calls about something, he takes advantage of having a sex expert for a client and asks a question about his penis, which he evidently feels is too small. She assures him it just seems that way because he’s looking down and tells him to see himself sideways in a mirror when he is erect and he will feel differently. “Love your penis,” she tell him, before adding “and bring some more bubble wrap.”

Dr. Ruth’s journey to becoming America’s most famous sex therapist was unlikely. She was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany, an only child beloved by her parents and fraternal grandmother. That love for the first decade of her life helped her to survive what was to come after. At 10, she was sent to a school in Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport of Jewish children. The refugees were treated as servants for the other children and one cruel matron even told them they were there because their parents had given them away.

But this did not crush the spirit of the child then known as Karola Ruth Siegel. The refugee children formed a close bond and Karola remained at the school until she was 17 and went to Tel Aviv to work on a kibbutz where she met her first husband. In Jerusalem, where the couple settled, she studied to be a kindergarten teacher -- she was told she’d be a good one because at 4’ 7” she would fit well in the chairs -- and joined the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitry organization, where she “learned to throw a hand grenade.” On her 20th birthday she was seriously injured in a bombing that filled her body with shrapnel and blew off the top if her right foot.

This didn't stop her either.  She recovered and with husband number two, moved to Paris and then to New York where the second marriage ended and she struggled as a single mother to further her education. Oh, by the way, she was given a scholarship to the New School in her second week in America. You just can’t make this stuff up.

After a therapist pointed out to her that the love she had received as a child is connected to the sexual pleasure she enjoyed as an adult, she determined to become a sex therapist to help other couples develop their sexual intimacy. With her knowledge, plus her wit and personality, she was given a 15-minute radio show, which was so wildly successful it expanded to an hour and that is how she became Dr. Ruth.

 Becoming Dr. Ruth comes to New York following its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company and a sold out run at TheaterWorks, Hartford.

The evening is definitely entertaining as Dr. Ruth tells her stories with great humor. A bit more gravity and reflection, though, would have made the portrait deeper. She does reach this level at the end when she straightforwardly recites statistics about the Holocaust, then acknowledges the personal, most important ones that still eludes her -- whatever happen to her parents and grandmother. She had last received a letter from them in 1941 and now wonders how long they lived after that, where they were sent and how they died. Dr. Ruth became more human to me then. She had been enjoyable company up until that point, but her vulnerability made her an even better companion.

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