Debra Jo Rupp
Berkshires resident Rupp, best known as sitcom mom Kitty Forman on “That ’70s Show,” plays Ruth Westheimer in “Dr. Ruth, All the Way” at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield through Saturday. The play covers Westheimer’s loss of her family in the Holocaust and her three marriages, as well as her success as a sex expert.
‘I was greatly nervous when she saw it for the first time. She had her entire family there. . . . But she is incredibly supportive. She loves it.’
Q. People are going to hear your name and Dr. Ruth’s and think this is a comic romp. But that’s not what it is, right?
A. It’s not from beginning to end a huge, big laugh, but there are big laughs in it.
Q. What was your reaction when Mark St. Germain called back in October to say he wanted to write a play about Dr. Ruth Westheimer, with you in mind for the lead?
A. I said, “Oh? The sex person?” He said, yeah, and I said, “Oh, Mark, I’m not sure I’m your girl for that.” And he said, “OK, Debra Jo, did you know she was a sniper in the Israeli Army?” And I went, “No.” Well, then I have to do her. Basically because that so didn’t fit with my image of her. So I knew there had to be a lot more to the story, and it turned out I was right.
Q. How did you prepare to play her?
A. I’ve had lunch with her, I’ve been to her apartment. I took my camcorder and recorded her walking, because on YouTube she’s always sitting, and I finally went to her and said, “Ruth, I’m so sorry, you have to walk for me.” I’m not Jewish, and I wanted to do things correctly, so I looked things up, like, how do you stand in front of the Wailing Wall? Because I didn’t want to be disrespectful.
Q. And how did you get her voice?
A. I worked with a dialect coach for 2½ months to get it, driving to New York once or twice a week to work with him. And it’s really hard because her voice is not one dialect, it’s like four, all smushed together.
Q. How was it acting Dr. Ruth’s relentless frankness about sex?
A. There’s one section of the play, where I’m doing the radio show, where I literally can feel the audience sit up straighter in their chairs and kind of move away from each other a little bit. And then [when] I’m able to deliver the punch line, so to speak, everybody relaxes. It’s truly one of my favorite moments in the play.
Q. I remember Kitty Forman saying, “Foreplay is important.” Kitty and Ruth have some similarities, don’t they?
A. We have a very similar fast energy, we’re both short, we’re both used to looking up all the time, and we march. When I taped Dr. Ruth walking, I went, oh my God, we walk exactly the same way. We’re just little marcher people. I think we have some kind of practicality, that when you get knocked down, you just pick yourself up, shake it off, and move on.
Q. It’s a different kind of responsibility playing a real person, isn’t it?
A. It was really important to me to do a really good job with this because I think she is quite remarkable.
Q. I understand Dr. Ruth has been to see the show six or seven times.
A. I was a little — no, I was greatly nervous when she saw it for the first time. She had her entire family there. I was terrified. I thought, if one person comes up to me and says, “No, it’s not good,” I don’t know what I would have done. But she is incredibly supportive. She loves it. And Mark has written some beautiful words here. It’s good. I’ll just say that. It’s good.