“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is much easier when you have Dr. Ruth Westheimer helping you.
That’s what Debra Jo Rupp, most famous for playing Kitty Forman on the sitcom “That ’70s Show,” found out for her turn in the one-woman show now at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse.
“She gave me as much as I wanted,” Rupp says of the famous sex therapist. “I found that when I first did the project, I was so terrified. I mean, the accents alone. She’s not from one country, but from four. That was a nightmare. I cried during some of those sessions.”
Rupp says that after doing exhaustive research watching every video and reading the memoirs she could get her hands on, only one aspect eluded her: Dr. Ruth’s walk.
“She had the creative team [of the play] over for lunch,” Rupp recalls. “I asked her to walk. I saw her on YouTube and every single thing I could find, but she was always sitting down. But we’re both little. Short people have to march. She marches back and forth in her apartment and I thought, ‘Oh, no problem. I got that down.’ “
Rupp was recently nominated for an Outer Critic’s Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award for her performance off-Broadway.
“Oh, boy, are we happy about that, but I don’t say, ‘off-Broadway,’ “ Westheimer says. “I say, ‘near Broadway.’ ‘Off-Broadway’ implies falling off the table. [Rupp] does a fabulous job. I have to pinch myself to keep quiet. I say to myself, ‘That’s not you.’ She is so much like me.”
The show recounts the major episodes in her life, from fleeing the Nazis in Kindertransport to becoming a sniper in Israel, studying in Paris and finding fame on TV in the 1980s.
“I like very much that there is not an intermission,” Dr. Ruth says of the show. “Some of the sadness and drama, it’s a little bit like a roller coaster. My life wasn’t all rosy. I get a lot of pleasure out of the triumph of my life. It’s nice being Dr. Ruth. Hitler did not win.”
She also wants the Fort Lauderdale audience to know that the set by Brian Prather has some very special details.
“The same set is coming to Florida. Brian gave me a miniature of the set, which he said he never did before. It has my parents’ pictures on it. I am looking at it now, looking out on the Hudson. Well, in the new set … in front of the bookcase he put little turtles in. Let me tell you about that, and Debra Jo also talks about this in the play, about what I believe in the image. A turtle is safe if it stays in one place, because it carries its house on top of it. If that turtle moves, it has to take a risk. It has to stick its neck out. That’s a little bit of my life. I took some risks. That’s why that symbol is there on the new set.”
What is not in the show is much about her second husband, Dan, (she’s had three marriages; two children, Miriam and Joel; and several grandchildren). Rupp says she just had to ask Westheimer about him.
“I mean, Dan is the father of her first child, Miriam,” Rupp says. “There just wasn’t anything about Dan. So I said, ‘Ruth, come on, what’s with Dan?’ She said, ‘Oh, Debra Jo, he was very good looking and a snappy dresser. That’s it.’ ”
Dr. Ruth says she thinks playwright Mark St. Germain did a “brilliant” job of condensing her life into a 100-minute show. “I always say: I know what I don’t know. That’s one of my philosophical sayings. I don’t know about the theater world…[but]…I know there are limitations in terms of people’s attention spans, so I am at peace with what has been shown.”
Westheimer will celebrate her 86th birthday on June 4 with the release of a new book, “Myths of Love.” While in Fort Lauderdale, she will hold post-show talk backs every night except for Friday, which is a fundraiser for Broward House (use promotional code “BROWARD” at ParkerPlayhouse.com).
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” runs through Sunday, May 11, at the Parker Playhouse, 707 N.E. Eighth St., in Fort Lauderdale (in Holiday Park). Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with matinees 2 p.m. Thursday and Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $28 to $66.50. Call 954-462-0222 or go to ParkerPlayhouse.com.