HARTFORD — I really didn’t know what to expect from Becoming Dr Ruth, Mark St Germain’s one-woman play about America’s most famous sex therapist, the tiny grandmotherly woman with the thick German accent, the beaming smile, and the startlingly frank vocabulary. Hartford TheaterWorks had been touting the show for months, bringing it directly from Pittsfield, Mass., where it premiered to sell out audiences last June.
Would it be a satirical skit along the lines of SNL? Was it going to be a compilation of memorable moments from Dr Ruth’s radio shows, kind of a racier version of “Car Talk”?
In fact it was neither of these, and I am happy to report that it was a real play, a wonderful, improbable life-affirming saga of how 10-year-old Karola Ruth Siegel survived the Holocaust, fought as a sniper with the Israeli Haganah, was riddled by shrapnel from a bombing, studied at the Sorbonne with her first husband, emigrated to America with her second, found a soulmate in her third (Fred Westheimer) and, after learning English from True Confessions magazine while getting a master’s degree at the New School in New York, went on to become famous, through a philosophy that had its roots in the most painful parts of her past, as well as her irrepressible capacity for joy.
Long sentence. Well, you get that way after a 95-minute monologue, which is not a complaint. The audience was on the edge of its collective seats the whole time, except when they were convulsed with laughter.
The setting is 1997, in Ruth’s upper west side New York apartment, shortly after the death of her beloved Fred. She is in the throes of packing up — the movers are coming tomorrow — because she can no longer bear to live in the place where they had been so happy together for so long. Brian Prather’s set is a wonderful jumble of cardboard boxes and milk crates, and a breakfront waiting to be emptied of thirty years’ worth of books, pictures, dollhouses and assorted memorabilia.
A picture window overlooks the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge, but it also serves as a screen on which will be projected various images to illustrate the story she is telling: her family; Kristallnacht; the orphanage in Switzerland where she spent the war; Jerusalem; receiving an honorary degree from Yale along with Paul McCartney; True Confessions covers.
Debra Jo Rupp, who originated the role in Pittsfield, darts about the stage, selecting objects to wrap and pack, but then stopping to explain their significance to the audience — pictures of her parents and grandmother, a music box her father gave her which played a song reassuring children that they were loved, a paper target from a fair where she impressed her grandson by getting all her shots in the bull’s eye, even a Dr Ruth board game in which players strive to collect “arousal points.”
The facts of her early life are stark. The beloved only child of middle class orthodox Jews living in Frankfort, Karola was ten years old when Kristallnacht precipitated the destruction of her immediate world. Her father’s business was destroyed, the synagogue was burned to the ground, and her father was taken away in a general round-up. Her last image of him was standing in the back of a truck, smiling confidently at her, in keeping with what he had always taught her: always show a smiling face, never let others see your fear . That is your dignity.
Karola’s life was saved by her being selected for the kindertransport wherein a trainload of German Jewish children were allowed to leave the country. She spent the war years in a Swiss orphanage, where the children were treated like unwelcome servants, and told that they were there because their parents didn’t want them. A few letters came in the first year but then they stopped; she never saw her parents and grandmother again, and never learned where and when they died.
After the war she went to Palestine to work on a kibbutz. She had dreamed of becoming a nursery school teacher but was told she was needed for hard labor instead. Eventually she made her way to Jerusalem, where she studied early childhood education, and fought with the underground Haganah army, where her sharpshooting skills led her to become a sniper, and the bomb injuries sent her to the hospital for months.
She married a young soldier whose family rejected her as a penniless foreigner, and followed him to Paris where he studied medicine and she studied psychology. When he returned to Israel, she divorced him and stayed behind. A romance with a French Jew led to emigration to America and the birth of a daughter. After that marriage broke up, she lived as a struggling single mother until she met Fred, became Dr Ruth Westheimer, and the rest was history.
Insofar as the play has a message, it is the message she drew from her life. The love she received from her parents and grandmother in her first ten years was formative, instilling in her the importance of physical and emotional closeness. She realized that being held and embraced and valued as a person were what gives life meaning, and a healthy sex life was the expression of being human, fulfilling the purpose of life. And as her father taught her, keep on smiling: use humor and friendliness to help others to understand.
Near the end of the play she is sad, because widowhood is sad — she has lost the love of her life — but then she shows the pictures of her grandchildren, and her face lights up with joy. She is, as she always was, a survivor.
(Originally scheduled to run until July 7, TheaterWorks has extended the run of Becoming Dr Ruth until July 14. Evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday, and matinees are each Saturday and Sunday.
Visit www.TheaterWorksHartford.org for the full schedule, including special programming associated with this production, ticket prices, and directions to the theater.)