Who knew that behind the facade of one of the most unlikely Pop Culture/TV icons of the last century lay such a tragic back story? “Becoming Dr. Ruth” lays all that bare to chilling, enlightening, suspenseful effect. It’s a one hour 40 min. show, with no intermission but it flew by at 100 mph. Powered by an unforgettable performance by Debra Jo Rupp as the eponymous title character. And oh yes, it’s one woman show.
At the always charming Westside Theater on W.43rd St., it’s pint-sized house and stage is just the right size for this tiny titan’s staggering story.
She is simply packing up her Washington Heights apartment that she shared with her late third husband. The stage is full of brown packing boxes, which trigger, doing the most mundane of casts, in the plainest of settings, but with the most gorgeous views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridges, Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s many memories of her childhood destroyed by Hitler and the holocaust come flooding back .Each item she packs invariably reminds of childhood moments. memories, both devastating and sweet.
As a child, she was sent out of her Frankfurt Orthodox Jewish home on the Kindertransport that got her safely to Switzerland for the remainder of the war, but she never say her father, mother and grandmother again. These memories are told plainly and without sentimental effect as Dr. Ruth, formerly Karola Sigel, lays them out in stark detail. You think “Great! She escaped to Switzerland!” but the loss of her family, and later in life, her seeking to rebuild her own, as first on a kibbutz in Israel and then later in Paris and finally New York, haunts her. And us.
The loss of her parents, about whom she was never able to find any information, is an ineffable tragedy that powers her drive to succeed, and succeed she does! As America’s Go-To guru of sexual advice in the ’70s. She clearly helps rebuild Americans’ damaged libidos and spirits with her always jovial, infectious optimism, which is the note on which the play ends, as she finally says proudly displaying a picture of her four grandchildren, “You see, Hitler, you lost.”
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is the best new play I’ve seen so far this season, and although there is only one woman on stage, Debra Jo Rupp, fills it with Dr. Ruth’s ebullient, indomitable spirit, and a cast of thousands.