PITTSFIELD – If you only know Dr. Ruth Westheimer as a virtual cartoon character, the little old lady who dishes out startlingly frank advice about sex in a thick accent, “Dr. Ruth, All the Way’’ will come as a revelation.
And if you only know Debra Jo Rupp from her lengthy stint as another virtual cartoon character — Kitty, on the sitcom “That ’70s Show’’ — her sensitive, nuanced portrayal of Dr. Ruth in Mark St. Germain’s new solo play will be similarly eye-opening.
The flawed but absorbing Barrington Stage Company production of “Dr. Ruth, All the Way,’’ directed by Julianne Boyd, represents the sixth time the company has presented the world premiere of a work by St. Germain, its resident playwright. Others include “The Best of Enemies,’’ an excellent civil rights drama that premiered last year, also under Boyd’s direction, and “Freud’s Last Session,’’ which went on to become an off-Broadway hit.
Indeed, so close is St. Germain’s relationship with the Pittsfield-based company that he now has the experience, rare for a playwright, of seeing his new work performed in a theater that bears his name.
With “Dr. Ruth, All the Way,’’ St. Germain is intent — too intent, I think — on rounding out the portrait of his subject.
Dr. Ruth is a marvel of chipper self-invention, a quirky pioneer who brought a new sexual frankness to radio and television while, for good or ill, helping to pave the way for other media-savvy advice gurus with outsize personalities: Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, Suze Orman, et. al.
Unlike some of the aforementioned, Dr. Ruth has never relied on bullying or humiliation. Instead, she projects a grandmotherly warmth and understanding, and an irrepressible, bubbly joie de vivre. Rupp captures these qualities in her performance — she’s a human exclamation point — along with what Dr. Ruth cheerfully describes as “my German-French-Israeli-American accent.’’
St. Germain wants us to see other dimensions of Dr. Ruth as well and to show how much loss and hardship she had to overcome. But in his determination to move beyond the caricature, he gives short shrift to her career as a sex therapist, mostly relegating it to the latter part of act two.
In the process, the playwright misses an opportunity to fully explore how it felt to be inside that cultural phenomenon and what Dr. Ruth’s ascent to household-name status revealed about her adopted country’s attitudes toward celebrity and sexuality.
The primary focus of “All the Way’’ is on Dr. Ruth’s life before the fame, and St. Germain, Boyd, and Rupp do an admirable job in communicating what a remarkable life it was. Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Germany in 1928, she was the only child of Jewish parents. When she was 10, her father was taken into custody by the Nazis and shipped to a labor camp. Shortly thereafter, young Karola was sent to Switzerland. She never saw her parents again; they were killed in the Holocaust.
Rupp steadily builds to a nearly shattering crescendo as Dr. Ruth delivers a clinical and precise account of the different kinds of atrocities committed at the main camps at Auschwitz, in full knowledge that she is quite possibly describing what befell her mother and father.
By her late teens, she had made her way to Jerusalem, where she became a sniper in the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary force. In 1948, on the night of her 20th birthday, she was badly wounded during a bombing. Eventually she made her way to America. While a single mother (there were two short-lived marriages before she found happiness with Manfred Westheimer, whom she wed in 1961), she began to acquire academic credentials. After a stint working at Planned Parenthood showed her that many women did not possess the knowledge they needed about their own bodies, she decided that sex education should be her life’s work.
“All the Way’’ unfolds in Dr. Ruth’s New York apartment in June 1997, a couple of months after Fred has died. She packs photographs and books into boxes, preparing to move, while she tells her life story directly to the audience. Ever-solicitous, she distributes pretzels to spectators at one point. When she gets a call from a mover named Mike, we hear only her end of the conversation, but he apparently has an anxious personal question for Dr. Ruth about whether he is sufficiently endowed to satisfy his bride-to-be, Jillian, in the bedroom.
Pragmatic as ever, whether the subject is sex or the logistics of moving, Dr. Ruth says to Mike: “Love your penis! Tell Jillian to love her vagina! Will you bring bubble wrap tomorrow?’’