Dr. Ruth tells her own story
PITTSFIELD -- Theater is about the art and craft of story -telling. America's best known and arguably most popular sex therapist has a rich and compelling story to tell and it's told in masterly fashion by playwright Mark St. Germain in his new two-act play. "Dr. Ruth, All the Way," which premiered over the summer at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage and is now back for a return engagement through Oct. 7 in a somewhat revised version.
The setting is Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer's apartment in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River, the New Jersey Palisades and the George Washington Bridge
It is April 3, 1997, two months after the death from a stroke of Dr. Ruth's third and most beloved and long-standing husband, Fred. The pain of memory, already a too-familiar companion for the diminutive escapee from the horrors of Nazi Germany, is too much with Dr. Ruth. Against the objections of her two married children -- Miriam, from Dr. Ruth's second husband, a Frenchman; and Joel, from her marriage to Fred -- she is packing up and leaving this apartment for one near the southern tip of Manhattan with a view of the Statue of Liberty.
As the play begins, Dr. Ruth -- played by Debra Jo Rupp with a beguiling mix of pixie enchantment, vigor, delight in celebrity and the wisdom of experience -- is barely visible in the warren of packing boxes and furniture.
How do she -- and St. Germain -- account for the sudden intrusion of nearly 117 people unexpectedly showing up in her apartment? This is theater, she says; her theater, her stage, her audience.
Literally and figuratively, Dr. Ruth's apartment is her stage setting. In a conceit that playfully acknowledges the theatricality of the show's lighting effects and projections, life and art blend their realities and make acceptable the otherwise challenging suspension of disbelief this odd theatrical form requires from its willing audience.
And so, between taking phone calls from her son, her daughter and a mover seeking sexual advice, Dr. Ruth dispenses some of her philosophy while mostly taking us through a vivid personal account of her life.
It begins with her childhood in Frankfurt and follows the wrenching permanent separation from her parents and beloved grandmother at age 10 as she is shipped to Switzerland with other Jewish children via the Kinder transport; her migration to Israel at the end of the war; and time with the Hagenah, the Jewish underground army in Palestine.
It continues through two brief failed marriages -- one to an Israeli, the other to a Frenchman who migrated to New York with Ruth and fathered her first child, Miriam.
She tells of her determination to make a life for herself and Miriam after her divorce; her developing interest in sex education; and her meeting Fred -- Manfred Westheimer -- at a ski resort, Belleayre, near Woodstock, N.Y..
Finally she describes her career that began with a 15-minute midnight show on a New York radio station and grew into the success she has enjoyed since as a writer, lecturer, radio and television personality with a refreshingly candid, forthright approach to sex education.
"I became a celebrity and I loved it," she gushes at one joyously, immodest, celebratory moment, like a child who has just had every gift-wish fulfilled.
For Dr. Ruth, her career is a way of giving back.
"I survived," she says. "One and a half million Jewish children did not."
St. Germain's writing adroitly navigates the minefields inherent in this genre. Even the occasional name-dropping is given context; less name-dropping for the sake of name-dropping than a kind of amazement, disbelief almost, at having met the cultural and political VIPs she's met.
Dr. Ruth is charmingly self-effacing about her shortcomings -- her diminutive size and especially her singing. The most inventive and engaging sequence is an interactive duet between Rupp's live Ruth and, on video, folksinger-songwriter Tom Chapin performing "Two Kinds of Seagulls," a sex-education song for children written by Dr. Ruth.
This is not an easy narrative for Dr. Ruth. Past is present. The loss of her parents and grandmother in the war, the more recent death of her beloved Fred, reside with aching poignancy deep within her. You know the cost of remembering, from the redness in Rupp's eyes, the play of emotion across her face, her pauses as Dr. Ruth comes to a particularly painful memory, her reluctance, at times, to share what we sense is going on within.
"There is a difference," she says at one point, "between forgetting and choosing not to remember."
There is a moment near the end of "Dr. Ruth, All the Way" in which Dr. Ruth talks about her work, her mission, if you will, in terms of the Jewish concept of t'kun olom, repairing a tear in the world.
But, particularly given Rupp's thoroughly endearing and full portrait, "Dr. Ruth" is about another concept, one drawn from a passage in Deuteronomy in which God says to the Jewish people "I have set before you [this day] life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life."
"Dr. Ruth" does.
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DR. RUTH, ALL THE WAY by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Julianne Boyd; scenic and projection designer, Brian Prather; costume designer, Jennifer Moeller; lighting designer, Scott Pinkney; sound designer, Jessica Paz; wig designer, Gabriella Pollibo-Rod man; dialect coach, Stephen Ga bis. Through Oct. 7. Eves.: Wed.-Fri. 7:30; Sat. 8. Mats.: Sat. 4; Sun. 3. Barrington Stage Com pany, Mark St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield. Tickets: $49-$40. (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org. 1 hour 58 minutes
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