I was not an avid fan of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, simply because I was not a radio or TV person. Occasionally, I saw her on Late Show with David Letterman and other late-night shows and thought she was entertaining and engaging, case closed. I never read the books she wrote. I was consumed by other reading and research necessitated by my career and pursuing my graduate degree.
That is why I wish the play Becoming Dr. Ruth, written by Mark St. Germain and directed by Julianne Boyd, had been performed years ago. Knowing the foundation of Dr. Ruth’s inspiration, perseverance and determination, which the play reveals, I would have had a completely new perspective on this amazing and endearing woman portrayed with great love, empathy and panache by Debra Jo Rupp in a solo show. All I can repeat after having seen the production yesterday is, “Wow! Dr. Ruth, I love you for who you are: your principles, your intentions, your life’s work. You may be one of the most underestimated TV celebrities of the last few decades. You were certainly underestimated by me!” Every time I recall the incarnation of Debra Jo Rupp as Dr. Ruth, I am in wonderment.
Mark St. Germain’s well-conceived play opens the book on how this Jewish woman, born in 1928, came to be Dr. Ruth with her iconic good will, cheerfulness and “overcomer” outlook. Her route to fame is not to be envied. The difficulties, the inherent and underlying pain and sorrow, every now and then peek through Rupp’s performance for one second and then vanish. As Dr. Ruth, she tells us that she keeps her emotions inside. Certainly, she follows what her grandmother told her: “Always smile. Be cheerful. You are loved.” By the play’s end, we understand that her life and celebrity, like everything she does, has a purpose outside of herself. It simply is because it must be. It’s ordained.
The charm of St. Germain’s work reveals that Karola Siegel (Dr. Ruth’s German name and identity before the Holocaust) has never forgotten who she is and where she came from. Nor has she forgotten those who loved her and those in spirit who will always love her. During the performance, as if in a master class in life’s lessons, we, her students, understand that she is aware of her continual evolution from this central point of love. This core radiates out, hooking into everyone she meets and bringing them with her to experience the hope and the joy of living. If this is the way to be a senior citizen, to be a life-long learner and encourager of others, Dr. Ruth, you set an incredible example. I’ll sit at your feet and ask for a triple portion! All of Dr. Ruth’s exuberance and enthusiasm beam through the good will of Rupp who inhabits and looks the younger version of Dr. Ruth.
The play takes place in 1997 in Washington Heights. The set represents the apartment where Dr. Ruth raised her children and lived with her late third husband, Fred. With ebullience she refers to the packing boxes piled everywhere and explains she is moving because “It is time for a change, and change is good!” During this discussion, she shows us the beautiful night view from her apartment overlooking the glittering George Washington Bridge and the pinpoint jeweled lights of the shoreline. The screen which flashes this view is an important backdrop on which we will see pictures of her family, parents, grandparents, children, Fred and other salient persons and representative events of her life.
St. Germain has written some of Dr. Ruth’s story chronologically, beginning with her ancestors and parents and moving on to her childhood. But there are meaningful intrusions from the present, which interrupt Dr. Ruth’s retelling and reinforce themes. For example in the beginning of the play Dr. Ruth answers a call and gives advice to a gentleman: “Love your penis and make sure your wife loves her vagina.” Though we are on familiar ground, already we suspect this brief conversation is grounded in secret roots which we may not quite understand, but which we will come to know later.
Toward the end of the play, she affirms the importance of touching and the need to be touched and the importance of sex in a loving relationship. It is a life theme that Dr. Ruth wishes to make sure we comprehend.
Along with these tidbits, there are breaks in her account where Dr. Ruth uses an illustration, humorous aphorisms, or pithy, peasant philosophy. For example, having sex on Shabbos is a “double blessing,” she says after she discusses her father’s and mother’s relationship. She advises that giving a wife compliments about being the best wife is one of the sexiest things a man can say to her; it’s a huge turn-on. The audience, especially the men, digested that one and tucked it away for future reference.
It is obvious that her childhood was a happy time living with her parents and grandmother in Frankfurt, Germany. Then came Kristallnacht in 1938 and the peace and closeness of family ended. In a program where 32 countries each took in 300 children, she was one of the “lucky,” taken to Switzerland, which saved her life. If she had stayed with her family, she would have died in the camps. After the war, she went to Palestine and had an adventurous time there, living on a kibbutz and helping the Haganah. She finally went to America, getting married and divorced along the way. It was Fred Westheimer, her third husband, who gave her the now renowned last name. Backed by his fun-loving nature, love and support, Ruth Westheimer opened like a flower, and after receiving her doctorate she became the noted sex therapist, radio and TV celebrity, Dr. Ruth.
St. Germain’s writing is crisp, full and powerful. There is little extraneous or unintended, like the individual being revealed. When Dr. Ruth mentions that she is a pack rat, the thought we infer is that she most likely will take many of the mementos with her to her next place, and that more important than the material value of an item is its symbolism, its significance and placement in her heart. This is a subtle and clever segue into Dr. Ruth’s character and being, and Rupp is acutely aware and portrays it beautifully. As a result, we understand that this woman’s values and principles run deep and she is neither frivolous nor superficial. By the conclusion we’ve come full circle as she shows us one of the mementos she has referred to at the beginning. Now we understand its symbolism and why she can never throw it away.
We also come to understand that the humor peppering her congenial storytelling, which is in effect an extended advice session, is founded upon wisdom and common sense. It, too, has intention and purpose: Humor helps one learn and remember much more easily, She knowingly smiles as she says this. Sometimes her humor produces raucous laughter, other times inner smiles. And sometimes the wisdom whips us into complete silence. It is as if we have been hit with a brick of meaning and we must remain very still to feel and know its full effect. Once again Rupp is cognizant of our response and indeed measures it out, then resumes. Her timing is impeccable.
The bio-play is not intellectual; it is much more. It is the crystallization of this unique woman’s life experiences and their import to her and to us. It is her studied and remembered reaction of what happened to her. Throughout the storytelling she continually ruminates and reflects. We are reminded that only an examined life is a life worth living. As duck that appears serene and quiet (an image used in the play) has, below the water, feet always paddling, always moving. Debra Jo Rupp as Dr. Ruth is paddling through our minds and hearts leaving rivulets behind that we will not easily forget. This is great writing, directing and acting. You cannot ask for anything more.
The production is at The Westside Theatre until December 22. See it while you still can.
Additional credits: Scenic design by Brian Prather, costume design by Jen Moeller, lighting design by Scott Pinkney and sound design by Jessica Paz.