The Blatt Performing Arts Center is the former home of a 1972 VFW post, whose cornerstone reads, “We honor the dead by helping the living.” Inside, Mark St. Germain’s one-woman show “Dr. Ruth, All the Way” echoes that theme, an angle that makes the script worthy of our attention.
Despite the inevitable moments of “And then I did this, and then I did that” — the chronological framework of autobiographies — “Dr. Ruth” has a powerful dramatic arc.
‘Dr Ruth, All the Way’
WHERE: Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, Mass.
WHEN: Through Oct. 7
HOW MUCH: $49-$40
MORE INFO: 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstage.org
The Dr. Ruth in question is ... but you know who she is. She’s that pint-sized PhD. purveyor of information on sexual pleasure, the woman who told it like it is before the Internet satisfied everyone’s curiosity about everything. She’s the woman who named unmentionable body parts on radio and TV with a matter-of-factness and sense of humor that made people realize their problems weren’t unique.
St. Germain could have settled for an evening with Dr. Ruth at the microphone, reprising some of her most famous and amusing callers from her radio show in the ’80s. And Lord knows, thanks to Debra Jo Rupp’s extraordinary embodiment of Dr. Ruth, we would have had a rollicking good time. St. Germain includes such a scene, and it’s funny.
Instead he has chosen to tell the whole story of Karola Ruth Siegel, the German Jew born in 1928 whose first 10 years were characterized by the love of family and whose subsequent life has been colored by grief over their disappearance into the Nazi concentration camps 70 years ago. Indeed, the irony is that Dr. Ruth Westheimer has spent her career championing the life force while being shadowed by memories of the dead.
Life of joy, pain
The staging of the story is clever. We drop in on Ruth Westheimer, newly widowed, in 1997, as she is packing for a move across town, against the wishes of her two children. (Kudos to Brian Prather’s set.) While boxing items, she spools out details of a life of joy and pain. Occasionally she almost breaks down at a memory, but her keen sense of humor returns her to conversational mode.
The script I saw on Sunday is a little different from the one that ran to packed houses in the summer. I found it a long two acts; 90 uninterrupted minutes are not only plenty but more beneficial to this dramatic arc I mentioned. Since St. Germain is still tweaking, as director Julianne Boyd said in her curtain speech, I’d dispense with the Chapin episode, the car bit, and the doctoral defense, for starters.
Aided by dialect coach Stephen Gabis, Rupp unerringly negotiates the heavily accented, cartoonish voice that apparently identified Dr. Ruth to a blind panhandler one day. Rupp’s timing, gestures, and bright and crumpling face evoke the quick wit and deep soul of this woman who’s always in search of an answer for others even when she has none for herself.
The apotheosis of this monologue comes near the end, when Ruth, who knows so many dates in her life, remains frustrated by the lack of information about those war years. But it’s the photograph of her grandchildren she shows that echoes the statement on the cornerstone, and in a triumphant and moving moment, Dr. Ruth lays to rest Hitler’s agenda.