Dr. Ruth, All the Way by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Debra Jo Rupp; photo: Kevin Sprague
Debra Jo Rupp; photo: Kevin Sprague
"I risked my neck to learn the facts of life."
When something special transpires on the stage it doesn’t matter if there are two actors, five actors, a dozen dancers or one tiny woman in view. Something special is what matters. Never a fan of one-person shows, the Berkshire seasons of late have been transforming my normal distaste for the form into something closer to wonderment. Tod Randolph did it earlier this season at Shakespeare and Company playing Dorothy Thompson and now, at Barrington Stage Company’s newly rechristened St. Germain Stage, we have Debra Jo Rupp as Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer in the Stage’s namesake’s new play about the radio/television/publishing Sociologist who revolutionized America’s concept of sex, sexual activity and the ways in which we speak about all this.
"Dr Ruth, All the Way" is a fine piece of theater, comic and serious, historical and yet a fictional account of a life. Fictional in that we know that Ruth Westheimer never got off the phone because her apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan has never become a theater, yet she tells us that we have done that for her and stage effects begin to happen all around her. Historical in that we find out the facts that the playwright and his still very much alive subject have agreed he will write about in an honest and telling fashion. Serious in that we learn the dark side of Dr. Ruth’s personal history, her family, the effect of the war and her escape from it, her need for study and education, her desire to work through her knowledge of things and to make a difference. Comic in that the natural humor that Dr. Ruth has displayed to the world in her many books, recordings, radio and television appearances is always in the foreground in this play and we laugh even when there is some pain in the story.
Casting Debra Jo Rupp is quite nearly a stroke of genius. With the aid of the playwright she is never alone on the stage, but is surrounded by the people in her life, surrounded on all sides by the bits of memorabilia they have infused with their work and love. As Rupp addresses her past she plays it out in all of its eccentricities and its foibles. She experiences the life force of Dr. Ruth, sometimes through words that could only have been uttered by the main character herself and sometimes through the exquisite transformation of thoughts and feelings that Dr. Ruth must have held dear in her memories.
Rupp’s character is packing up an apartment she has lived in for more than thirty years. Rupp uses each prop as though it were a possession and not a theatrical piece she has to move somewhere. The reality in her sense of touch and the way that a touch can trigger a treasured reaction is purely brilliant. She does this naturally, gently without imposing images that could turn something real into something theatrical. There is a benign genuineness in Rupp’s work.
And she does it with a character’s voice and accent and gestures. When she moves, when she stretches her neck forward, or gestures with both hands, or allows a facial tick to express an internalized response, she is totally playing her character. Her accent is her own, and not really the famous Doctor’s, but it is such a perfect part of her performance that it strikes a familiar chord and is Doctor Ruth’s voice and accent. The combination of German, French, Israeli and American as coached by Stephen Gabis is a challenge that Rupp has taken on along with her singing of a hilarious duet with Tom Chapin who puts in a remarkable appearance in the second act, her imitation of Shirley Temple’s dancing and her introduction of a few of the more difficult people that Dr. Ruth encountered on her journey to success.
Julianne Boyd has done a perfect job working with her actress and the playwright. There isn’t a misstep in the work here. With the exception of one small quibble of my own, and it is just a quibble, the visual presentation could hardly be better and though the director’s sense of space and movement in that space is where she is at her best, she has still has left me wishing for one more thing. Rupp is not a very small woman, and Westheimer is diminutive. It seemed to me that the actress and the set were in perfect proportion to each other and I wonder if, in the reality that is represented here, Westheimer is a bit more out of normal scale with her apartment’s walls and furniture. Just a quibble, but I needed to ask.
This evening is a triumph for the actress and the director and also for the playwright who has had more world premieres at this theater than might be expected (it’s no wonder they named the space after him!) and this is the latest. His work here is flawless. He has transcribed a living being and created a new version of that woman for the generations to come.
Technically the show is among the finest presented in this second stage space. Brian Prather has designed an apartment that anyone would want to live in. Jennifer Moeller has given this stage Dr. Ruth costumes that never call to mind the woman or the times she has lived in and yet are the perfect "at home packing" clothes for this character. Scott Pinkney’s lighting design and the use of projections of all sorts in all sorts of places by the team of designer/designer/director works wonderfully. Gabriella Pollino-Rodman clearly understood the challenge of wigging the dark-haired actress and transplanting the Westheimer image onto the head of Rupp.
I am putting aside, once and for all, my dislike for one person plays. This show in particular has altered my perception of the form. St. German’s conceit and his continued use of an outrageous concept makes a world of difference in the story of a woman who is little else than theatrical, never entirely of this plane, and wonderfully appealing. Dr. Ruth had three husbands and Debra Jo Rupp could have as many partners as she desires, especially during the run of this play. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that the proposals are already coming in stuffed in envelopes, left on answering machines, on Facebook and Twitter. She and her show are just that appealing.
Dr. Ruth, All the Way plays on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center of Barrington Stage Company, located at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA through July 21. For information and tickets (and you have to hurry to get any) call the box office at 413-236-8888.