One of the most extraordinary women of our time, Dr. Ruth Westheimer almost single-handedly brought a frank discussion of sexuality to a society largely governed by Puritanical, and then Victorian, ideas about erotic pleasure. Now the compelling life history of the diminutive, German-accented powerhouse comes to the stage in Mark St. Germain’s one-woman show, “Becoming Dr. Ruth: The Unexpected Journey,” starring Debra Jo Rupp. The play, which is currently in previews, opens next week at the Westside Theatre in Midtown.
Directed by Julianne Boyd, the artistic director of the Barrington Stage Company, where the play had its premiere, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” is set in the therapist’s sprawling Washington Heights apartment as she prepares to move to a new building. Each item that she packs triggers memories of the past — memories that include witnessing her parents being deported by the Nazis, escaping from Frankfurt on a Kindertransport to Switzerland, training as a sniper for the Haganah (Jewish underground army in Palestine), studying at the Sorbonne, and ultimately immigrating to America where she found her unusual calling as a pioneering sex therapist and radio/TV personality.
St. Germain wrote “Freud’s Last Session,” a long-running Off-Broadway drama about a meeting between the Jewish inventor of psychoanalysis and the Christian intellectual, C.S. Lewis. The playwright said that Westheimer saw that play a half dozen times and the actor who played Freud, Martin Raynor, suggested that she be his next subject.
Westheimer turned out to be a gold mine for the dramatist. As he told The Jewish Week, “she is filled with energy, love for life, and the desire to make a difference.” Her drive to help people with sexual dysfunction is linked to her Jewish identity, to the fact that Jews “celebrate sex in ways that Christians often back away from.” Nevertheless, he revealed, “she’s a very private person. She often replied, ‘Don’t analyze me,’ when I asked about her feelings.”
St. Germain wrote the play with Rupp, a TV star best known for “That ’70s Show” and “Friends,” in mind. Although playing the role of a living person is a particular challenge, Rupp said, she has aimed to “reproduce Dr. Ruth’s generous spirit and enormous energy.” (Ironically, even though Westheimer was told, early in her career, to eliminate her accent, Rupp has had to work with a voice coach for months in order to imitate it.)
Even though Rupp grew up as a Southern Baptist in Massachusetts, in one respect she is just like Westheimer. As she explained, “I’m short, so I just march everywhere I go.”
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” opens Oct. 29 and runs through Jan. 12, 2014 at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2, and Sunday matinees at 3. For tickets, $79, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.