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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Becoming Dr. Ruth" - A Canadian's Review (Hartford TheatreWorks)

"A lesson learned with humor is a lesson remembered".

That is just one line from Mark St.Germain's powerful and revealing play about the engaging, legendary American sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. There is certainly humour aplenty in this production, but also aching tragedy, and innumerable life lessons shared over the course of 90 dialogue-packed minutes.

Presented somewhat like the popular TV mockumentary style in use now, Dr. Ruth is quite aware of her audience, referring to them as "company". She invited them in, and spoke openly and candidly to the entire theatre as she packed in preparation to move from her home.

From a simple set that speaks to her personality with each set piece, the play also incorporates multimedia wonderfully. Which is where I will now quit giving away what you can expect - when the play turns to heartache and seriousness, it is with substantial impact provided by that multimedia feature. 

Funny, you can't imagine Dr. Ruth without her trademark giggle and uninhibited sense of humour. Humorist Garrison Keillor has said that humour comes from having an unhappy childhood. Dr. Ruth endured so much of that, yet what joy she retained from her childhood guides everything in her future. It was a story I didn't prepare myself for in advance of attending this play.

Behind the persona there are those formative events, often tied back onstage to small, seemingly insignificant set pieces. Each holds a story and a life lesson for Dr. Ruth, and the audience: doll houses, turtles, and a poignant wash cloth.

The play was written by St. Germain specifically for Debra Jo Rupp, a former starring cast member of "That 70's Show". Rupp does not relent for even a moment onstage, inviting us in as Dr. Ruth, but carrying a life on her shoulders for 90 solid minutes. The most effective moments of her acting weren't necessarily how convincingly she becomes her character, but just within her eyes - laughter, pride, joy. Anguish.   

Photographs and memories abound and illustrate the importance of family, the pride of accomplishment - and like a home damaged after a flood, how a person assesses what a treasure really is. 

"Music is the thread that holds my memories together", Dr. Ruth tells the audience during one scene. Theatre as compelling as this is what will linger in your memory, long after...

As it happened, we were fortunate to have a brief audience Q & A with Rupp and a manager from the theatre afterward, but I was too busy making frantic notes on my iPhone to ask any questions- probably not a great attribute for a theatre reviewer to have short memory issues :-)

What I do recall hearing was the strong degree of collaboration they enjoyed with Dr Ruth and her family in this entire enterprise. They also hope to bring it to New York. Like the one-woman enduring hit "Shirley Valentine", "Becoming Dr. Ruth" could enjoy a life long after the success it is already enjoying.

I have seen live theatre all across North America - Canada, New York, LA, San Francisco, Philly and more - this may well be the production I remember the most - a lesson learned with humour...


Mrs That Dan Guy said...

I fully agree. A story that needs to be heard. It will touch everyone in many different ways. I also agree, this play is the one I will remember forever. You can feel every bit of pain, every bit of joy. Outstanding.

ThatDanGuy said...

Very impactive, not at all what I expected - a discovery I'm glad I made!!