Everyone knows the supremely direct Dr. Ruth from her radio and television shows, “Sexually Speaking.” But at 4 foot 7 inches tall, her life has been anything but short on adversity. She was a huge part of my childhood. I remember hearing the sound of her voice on the radio as clearly as I can hear it today. We were avid listeners. She gave women a microphone. But before she became America’s most famous sex therapist, she lived a life unbeknownst to many. She survived the Holocaust, moved to Israel and joined the Hagannah. Later while living in France and then the U.S., she got her Doctorate in Education while a single mother.
She has not had the easiest life, but she has certainly had an inspiring one and now her story is being told in BECOMING DR. RUTH, a one-woman show playing at the Westside Theater. Debra Jo Rupp (best known as Kitty Forman on “That 70’s Show”) plays the lead. Perfectly cast (not as short, but short), Rupp manages to hold the attention of her audience for the full 100 minutes she is on stage as she displays Dr. Ruth’s mannerisms, walk and accent (a mixture of four languages). The writer, Mark St. Germain, took a huge amount of information, including her biography, and wrote an in depth play about her life.
The whole play revolves around Dr. Ruth packing up her NYC apartment after the death of her husband. As she unpacks, she discovers items that trigger memories which she discusses freely with her audience such as photographs, a music box, doll houses, books, letters. and a simple washcloth. As Karola Ruth Siegel, who lost her parents during the Holocaust. She was saved by going on the Kinder Transport to Switzerland where she found the circumstances difficult but of the experience, she said, “How could we complain? We were lucky we were alive. All I knew was that America had food and Shirley Temple.” At age 17, she went to Israel and lived on a kibbutz. She soon joined the Haganah, part of the Israeli Defense Force, and said that she was “short and fast” and therefore indispensable.
Eventually, she moved to France and as soon as she was able, having been offered reparations for Holocaust survivors, she moved to the U.S. with her then husband. She got a scholarship to go the New School and continued her studies as a single mom after her marriage didn’t work out. She went onto work for Planned Parenthood and then a teacher at Lehman’s College. It was there she learned that “people need to talk about sex.” In 1980, she got a radio show and was soon on TV with George Burns, David Letterman and Joan Rivers.
The play ends with her holding a simple washcloth she took from her home in Germany when she was forced to leave her family behind, and she declares “Hitler lost, I won.” The play is riveting, to say the least. Dr. Ruth has had a life with a story that deserved to be told, and I can see why the producers were eager to share her story. She has helped so many people but not many know about her dedication to helping people. In Hebrew, we call it “tikun olam” and at age 85, she’s still doing her best to save the world. I admire St. Germain for crafting a show about a phenomenal woman. My only complaint is that there were juxtapositions that were difficult for me to fathom, particularly a shot of Dr. Ruth meeting Bill Clinton that flashed on a screen right after she talked about her experience in Israel, which I found very moving.
I understand that it was used to show how far she would later come as an American, a Passport she takes quite seriously, but I found the jump ahead 50 years disconcerting. However, I do have a friend who saw the show when it premiered in Massachusetts in 2012, and she said it was 2-1/2 hours so much has been cut, making it a far better one-woman show and I commend his efforts to tighten up and create a show about Dr. Ruth, a woman who has come so far and has had quite a life. Here’s ticket info to see BECOMING DR. RUTH: