In a 1987 New York Times review of Cynthia Heimel’s urban comedy A Girl’s Guide to Chaos, Stephen Holden called Debra Jo Rupp’s performance as the barbed author’s witty alter-ego “an appealing mixture of pluck and pathos.” The same can still be said of the 61-year-old veteran actress best known for playing Kitty Forman in the hit television series “That ’70s Show.” Currently inhabiting the life of the legendary psychosexual therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer in a funny and fascinating new one-woman play by Mark St. Germain titled Dr. Ruth, All the Way, Rupp is combining her trademark quirky charm with a deeply penetrating sincerity to deliver a mesmerizing, illuminating, and unforgettable portrayal.
Rupp is currently back at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield for a limited return engagement (through October 7) of Dr. Ruth, All the Way after enjoying a sold-out 36-performance world premiere run this summer. With an eye on New York, Rupp, St. Germain, and director Julianne Boyd are using this second staging as an opportunity to tighten the script and make Dr. Ruth’s journey from Holocaust survivor to cultural icon clearer and more compelling. Dr. Ruth herself couldn’t be more pleased.
At 84, the diminutive dynamo seems to be the play’s greatest cheerleader. During its first run, Dr. Ruth saw the show seven times, bringing her entire family on opening night. She was also in the audience for the second opening on September 23. After that show, during a reception for invited guests, she joyfully took on the role of ambassador with the press, VIP donors, and what looked to be potential backers from New York. “She’s incredible,” Dr. Ruth enthused about Rupp. “He’s a genius,” she exclaimed about playwright St. Germain. Unquestionably, Dr. Ruth would like to see this dramatization of her life find a wider audience.
Her enthusiasm for the project was not always a given, however. When St. Germain first approached Dr. Ruth about bringing her story to the stage, she rejected his query with a quick “no” and dismissive wave of the hand. After meeting him and learning that he wouldn’t do anything to disrespect her or her wishes, however, her reservations quickly turned to whole-hearted approval. As we come to see in the play, that forthright decision-making was, and is, one of Dr. Ruth’s greatest assets. When presented with an opportunity that holds promise, she seizes it and moves forward full speed ahead.
In her performance as Dr. Ruth, Rupp captures this self-determined quality with a natural ease that belies the unspeakable hardships that the German-born Jew has overcome in her 84 remarkable years. It’s a masterful stroke of understatement, for as unbelievable as Dr. Ruth’s life appears to be on paper, once you “meet” this outwardly public but inwardly private powerhouse through Rupp’s portrayal, you see that circumstances could not have unfolded any other way. From an orphanage in Switzerland to the Israeli army, from single motherhood to earning a doctorate in education, from a part-time job at Planned Parenthood to a ground-breaking radio and television talk show, this noted therapist, author, wife, and mother has become precisely the inspirational personality she was destined to be. Rupp convinces the audience of that with every joyous laugh and aching sigh.
When St. Germain told Dr. Ruth whom he had in mind to portray her, she immediately Googled Rupp and began watching YouTube videos of her in “That ’70s Show.” According to Dr. Ruth, one moment in particular sold her on Rupp’s ability to capture both the comedy and drama of her life. It was when Red and Kitty were in the car and their male neighbor, riding in the back seat, kept placing his hand on Kitty’s shoulder while Red was busy driving. “I could see on Debra Jo’s face so clearly that she was afraid of what her husband would think – but that she also loved it,” Dr. Ruth beamed. “I knew right then she was terrific!”