Several Incarnations …One Life- Becoming Dr. Ruth

Holocaust survivor, sniper, sex therapist, author, mother of two, widow, grandmother of four all packed in 5-foot-4-inch frame, can anyone say #WOW?  While some sit and contemplate how to get one life going, Dr. Ruth has had several and at 87 this force of fierceness is still out and about every night.  Listen up Millennials, before there was a Carrie Bradshaw there was Dr. Ruth.  When she launched her radio show, “Sexually Speaking”, in 1980, the idea of a woman speaking so candidly about sex was still taboo. Dr. Ruth is a trailblazer, but what led her to become America’s favorite sex therapist?  That journey is poignantly explored in Becoming Dr. Ruth.

3.192955The one-woman production takes place in 1997 at Dr. Ruth’s apartment in Washington Heights.  Recently widowed, she is preparing to move and talking on the phone when she realizes she has company (the audience).  Dr. Ruth, colorfully played by Debra Jo Rupp, then breaks the fourth wall to lead the audience through a narrative of the events of her life before we came to know her.  Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Wiesenfeld, Germany, Dr. Ruth was forever separated from her family when her mother and grandmother decided to send her to Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport.  She details the harsh reality of living in that environment while still dealing with the issues of childhood.  At 17, she was a member of the Haganah in Jerusalem serving as a scout and sniper.  In 1950, Dr. Ruth moved to France studying and teaching psychology at the University of Paris.  In 1956, she immigrated to New York City, moving into the same apartment she inhabits today.  And if that wasn’t enough, she divorced two husbands, gave birth to a daughter, married her beloved Fred Westheimer, became a mother for the second time, earned a master’s degree in sociology and completed her-post doctoral work in human sexuality before the name Dr. Ruth became synonymous with sex. The play also chronicles what life was like after she became the most famous sex therapist of the 20th century.

Four-stars usually signify that a creative endeavor has achieved an A+ grade.  Well in my opinion, four stars don’t adequately display how wonderful this production is.  Becoming Dr. Ruth is triumphant – a soul-hooking display of the resiliency of the human spirit.  From the time Debra Jo Rupp acknowledges the audience until the lights dim, spectators are swept-up in a tale so epic Homer would be envious that he hadn’t written it.  The narrative is so engrossing that no other characters are necessary.  Dr. Ruth’s story makes for the quintessential one-woman show.

3.192957Playwright Mark St. Germain wrote my favorite play in 2010, Freud’s Last Session, and I believe he has done it again with Becoming Dr. Ruth.  To create a character in your head, infuse him/her with a dose of humanity and make him/her relatable to an audience isn’t an easy commission, but the best writers can make the transformation seem effortless.   What is even more difficult is converting a real person into a character. This is St. Germain’s genius.  He can translate a story, real or fiction, of historical figures that preserves their human quality without making them caricatures.   When St. Germain wrote the play, he knew he wanted Debra Jo Rupp to portray Dr. Ruth and he was so right.  Rupp’s performance is magnificent – she nails the amalgamation of Dr. Ruth’s German, Hebrew, French and English accent with the accuracy of a sharp shooter (pun intended).  To say she is a delight to watch is a gross understatement; her presence is its own spotlight.  She fills the stage warmth.

Becoming Dr. Ruth encompasses everything you want in a play – it tells a powerful story with candor, humor and sophistication.  It’s a brilliant artistic representation that mirrors a life that is equally as brilliant.   Many of us have followed Dr. Ruth’s advice, now take my advice…go to the Westside Theatre and see this play!

Photos: Carol Rosegg, Lanny Nagler

Duel on the Couch: Freud’s Last Session

When attending the theatre, the audience expects to be entertained and enlightened.  Whether it is a musical, comedy or drama, patrons want to see a fresh, live perspective of the human experience.  Freud’s Last Session is the epitome of entertainment and enlightenment keeping the audience firmly glued to the edge of their seats.   It is sophisticated fiction at its finest, a production worthy to be seen again and again.

Based on a suggestion proposed by Harvard’s Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. in The Question of God, Freud’s Last Session turns a simple query into an engaging theatrical sensation.    Playwright Mark St. Germain probes one of the greatest “what if” questions of the 20th century and tackles some of the most debated questions in human history with immense insight and savoir vivre.  The “what if” is whether or not Dr. Sigmund Freud or C.S. Lewis ever met.  Dr. Nicholi points out in The Question of God that a young Oxford professor visited Dr. Freud after he arrived in England, although it was unclear if the professor was C.S. Lewis.  But the speculation of such an event is of no consequence, Freud’s Last Session will satisfy any curiosity one might have when wondering how an epic encounter of two of the most intelligent minds to ever set footprints on this earth would go. 

The play is set in Dr. Freud’s home office in London on September 3, 1939, the day England enters World War II.  C.S. Lewis arrives at Freud’s home believing their meeting is to be a chiding by Freud about Lewis’ depiction of him in a book, but what really intrigues Freud is C.S. Lewis’ transformation from an atheist to a Christian.  Their meeting evolves into an awesome intellectual standoff that would have Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef shaking in their boots.  As the threat of annihilation looms like plumes of smoke from a newly shot cannon, these men go back and forth on the subjects of sex, love, and most importantly, does God truly exist.   As Freud and Lewis introspectively grapple, both revealing details about their childhood and experiences, they gain greater insight about one another and develop a profound bond.  Evidence of the intimacy of their new and brief relationship is displayed when Lewis is allowed the sacred task of removing Freud’s prosthetic jaw as he begins to choke, a duty that is only performed by Freud’s daughter Anna.   

Everything about this production is limited – limited characters, limited set and limited theatre seating, but the constraints serve as advantages in this production.  The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater adds another intimate layer to this meeting of the minds.  Instead of feeling like an audience member viewing a conversation, one feels more like a fly on the wall privy to an exclusive event.  The set is a beautifully decorated replica of Freud’s office in Austria complete with an assortment of books, couch, and various deities, which could reveal some contradictions in Freud’s belief structure as Lewis cleverly points out.  The set inserts a material richness that compliments the dialogue and compelling portrayals of C.S Lewis and Dr. Freud by Mark H. Dold and Martin Rayner.  Portraying a historic figure can be a difficult endeavor for an actor; especially individuals that are considered demigods, Dold and Rayner are so believable that I left the theatre feeling as if I had personally met Dr. Freud and C.S. Lewis.  These two men played off of each other extremely well; together they gave a performance so concentrated an addition of another character would have weakened the harmony of the show.  In a nutshell, the components of this play have all the classic quality of a Channel suit and exemplify the theory that less is more.

What I enjoyed most about the production was that Freud’s Last Session left my mind swirling with all the right questions, but none of the answers.  It challenged me to seek them out and discover my own conclusions.  In the wake the 9th anniversary of September 11 and the controversy surrounding the ground zeromosque, I realized the questions Freud and Lewis toil over during the play are more relevant than ever.  We may never find the answers, just as Freud’s and Lewis’ deliberation ends in a stalemate, but the fact that we still seek the answers means that as a society we are still able to grow past our current understanding of the world, a notion that I believe would please both Dr. Freud and C.S. Lewis very much.

Photos: Kevin Sprague