BWW INTERVIEW: Debra Jo Rupp Does Dr. Ruth
In a 1987 New York Times review of Cynthia Heimel’s urban comedy A Girl’s Guide to Chaos, Stephen Holden called Debra Jo Rupp’s performance as the barbed author’s witty alter-ego “an appealing mixture of pluck and pathos.” The same can still be said of the 61-year-old veteran actress best known for playing Kitty Forman in the hit television series “That ’70s Show.” Currently inhabiting the life of the legendary psychosexual therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer in a funny and fascinating new one-woman play by Mark St. Germain titled Dr. Ruth, All the Way, Rupp is combining her trademark quirky charm with a deeply penetrating sincerity to deliver a mesmerizing, illuminating, and unforgettable portrayal.
Rupp is currently back at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield for a limited return engagement (through October 7) of Dr. Ruth, All the Way after enjoying a sold-out 36-performance world premiere run this summer. With an eye on New York, Rupp, St. Germain, and director Julianne Boyd are using this second staging as an opportunity to tighten the script and make Dr. Ruth’s journey from Holocaust survivor to cultural icon clearer and more compelling. Dr. Ruth herself couldn’t be more pleased.
At 84, the diminutive dynamo seems to be the play’s greatest cheerleader. During its first run, Dr. Ruth saw the show seven times, bringing her entire family on opening night. She was also in the audience for the second opening on September 23. After that show, during a reception for invited guests, she joyfully took on the role of ambassador with the press, VIP donors, and what looked to be potential backers from New York. “She’s incredible,” Dr. Ruth enthused about Rupp. “He’s a genius,” she exclaimed about playwright St. Germain. Unquestionably, Dr. Ruth would like to see this dramatization of her life find a wider audience.
Her enthusiasm for the project was not always a given, however. When St. Germain first approached Dr. Ruth about bringing her story to the stage, she rejected his query with a quick “no” and dismissive wave of the hand. After meeting him and learning that he wouldn’t do anything to disrespect her or her wishes, however, her reservations quickly turned to whole-hearted approval. As we come to see in the play, that forthright decision-making was, and is, one of Dr. Ruth’s greatest assets. When presented with an opportunity that holds promise, she seizes it and moves forward full speed ahead.
In her performance as Dr. Ruth, Rupp captures this self-determined quality with a natural ease that belies the unspeakable hardships that the German-born Jew has overcome in her 84 remarkable years. It’s a masterful stroke of understatement, for as unbelievable as Dr. Ruth’s life appears to be on paper, once you “meet” this outwardly public but inwardly private powerhouse through Rupp’s portrayal, you see that circumstances could not have unfolded any other way. From an orphanage in Switzerland to the Israeli army, from single motherhood to earning a doctorate in education, from a part-time job at Planned Parenthood to a ground-breaking radio and television talk show, this noted therapist, author, wife, and mother has become precisely the inspirational personality she was destined to be. Rupp convinces the audience of that with every joyous laugh and aching sigh.
When St. Germain told Dr. Ruth whom he had in mind to portray her, she immediately Googled Rupp and began watching YouTube videos of her in “That ’70s Show.” According to Dr. Ruth, one moment in particular sold her on Rupp’s ability to capture both the comedy and drama of her life. It was when Red and Kitty were in the car and their male neighbor, riding in the back seat, kept placing his hand on Kitty’s shoulder while Red was busy driving. “I could see on Debra Jo’s face so clearly that she was afraid of what her husband would think – but that she also loved it,” Dr. Ruth beamed. “I knew right then she was terrific!”
In Dr. Ruth, All the Way, audiences will likely be surprised to see the heartache behind the giggle of the exuberant character they know only through pop culture. They may also be surprised at the “pluck and pathos” of the accomplished actress portraying her, known mostly as a quirky sitcom mom. As the inimitable Dr. Ruth, Rupp flexes some serious acting muscles, and she’s a revelation.
Prior to the September 23 re-opening of Dr. Ruth, All the Way at Barrington Stage, BroadwayWorld.com had a chance to talk with Rupp about this role of a lifetime. Excerpts from that conversation follow:
BroadwayWorld.com: Debra Jo, there’s a quality about you that seems to come through in everything I’ve seen you do where you really seem to love and respect the characters that you play.
Debra Jo Rupp: Wow. No one’s ever said that to me before. That’s really nice.
BWW: It just comes right through the screen to me.
DJR: Well, I think that you have to find a piece of yourself in every role you play. If you don’t believe what you’re doing, you can not expect anyone else to believe it.
BWW: Do you deliberately seek out characters you like?
DJR: Oh, no. I don’t really have that luxury. (Laughs) I take what comes my way. Then I twist it a little bit to make it suit me. If the role calls for a big burly policewoman, obviously I can’t be that. So my substitute is a tiny little terrier dog that will not let go.
BWW: With Dr. Ruth that’s a bit of a challenge. She’s a real person and she’s still alive.
DJR: The real person part was absolutely terrifying. But I think we are actually very similar. We both have really high energy and we’re both short. We spent our whole lives looking up. She’s a little shorter than I am but not much. And we always kind of march around, and we’re both kind of strong. I was able to find that immediately and that helped a lot.
BWW: There’s also an essence that you two share. When I first saw the announcement that you were playing her I thought, “That’s kind of a no brainer.”
DJR: I know! A lot of people responded that way. I think it’s also my voice because I can access that high voice. I did it for eight years in “That ’70s Show.” The dialect was really hard, though, because she’s not from one country. That would be just too easy! It’s a combination of four different countries. It took months to get comfortable with that.
BWW: There are also those mannerisms that you have to adopt…
DJR: Yes, but I’m not mimicking. I just get the essence of who she is, and that seems to be enough. What’s inside her seems to shoot out.
BWW: That’s the quality I was referencing initially. There’s this essence that comes out of you as a person, as an actress, that does seem like Dr. Ruth. You share her buoyancy and warmth. Do you see other qualities that you have that are similar to hers?
DJR: I think so. I think that we’re both interested in people. There’s a curiosity we share. When I play her onstage it’s important to me that I communicate this extraordinary life. I think that shows. I think that reads. I hope it does.
BWW: According to the reviews it certainly does. And it sold out and you’re coming back, so that says something. Tell me about Dr. Ruth the person that most of us wouldn’t have known.
DJR: When Mark (St. Germain) called me to do the role, I was a little appalled. I said, “Wait, the sex woman? No, I don’t think I’m your girl for that. I really don’t.” And then he said, “Well, you know, she was a sniper in the Israeli army.” And then I went, “Okay, now I have to do her!” Because the two sides so did not fit for me. You know, this little Dr. Ruth person that I knew late at night talking about sex, and then a sniper in the Israeli army. There has to be a lot there! In so many different ways she’s a survivor. She’s four foot seven – she is this tiny, tiny thing – and by the age of 27, when she came to America, she was learning her fourth language. She was in her fourth country. At 27. It’s amazing. And by herself! She lost her family when she was 10. She was sent away on the Kindertransport. I couldn’t have done that. I’m not even sure I knew my full name when I was 18 and went to college.
BWW: How does a woman, a child, develop those tools?
DJR: She says – and we have added this into the script – that she had this fantastic family for the first 10 years of her life. She was an only child and she was loved. So she knew what that was. That carried her through. She also believes that there was a reason she survived when 1.5 million children died. She feels it’s her obligation to make the world a better place.
BWW: And she felt that right as a young girl?
DJR: I think so. I think she always carried that with her. We don’t say this in the play and it’s kind of my own personal opinion, but being 1 of only 300 children on that Kindertransport, all of them under 16 and in the same boat, they became kind of a surrogate family for her. She still sees them when she goes to Israel. I also think she developed the skill of adaptability. I think she’s able to fit in wherever she is. That’s something she cultivated to survive.
BWW: You can almost understand the transition to the Israeli army.
DJR: She says in the play that she wanted to defend the Jewish people.
BWW: Afterwards she goes into education, which again sort of makes sense. But how does she make the leap from a kindergarten teacher to a sex therapist, and then to becoming a radio and TV personality? Is that covered in the play?
DJR: She thought sex education was extremely important. Her first job was a little part-time job with Planned Parenthood. There she saw how ignorant women were about sex. I mean, oh, my God, look at the 1950s. I can’t say that my mother knew a lot! So it was important to her that women were educated. She got her degrees at the New School. She studied with doctor Helen Singer Kaplan. One day this letter came into the institute asking if someone would talk to all the radio stations in New York about sex education. Dr. Ruth volunteered. Because they thought she was really funny, one radio station offered her a 15 minute show, and it just took off. She was 50 at the time. It changed her life.
BWW: So it was sort of a “right place, right time” situation?
DJR: I think so, yes. I think that’s what it is in entertainment anyway – being at the right place at the right time. Then once you’re there, hopefully you have the equipment or talent or whatever to keep it going.
BWW: She could have easily faded if she hadn’t been substantial.
BWW: I think the general pop culture seems to gloss over the importance of her role as a sex therapist because she had fun with it and she was able to get people to relax with her easy candor. Does her sense of humor make it easy to dismiss her?
DJR: She says in the play that “a lesson learned with humor is a lesson remembered.” I think that’s very true.
BWW: I was thinking of your role on “That ’70s Show.” Do you think Kitty Forman would have been a woman Dr. Ruth could have helped?
DJR: I don’t know that Kitty had a sexual problem. She was a nurse. I think she knew exactly what was going on. I actually think that Kitty was a little ahead of her time. But I think she was also quite protective of her children which maybe got in her way a little bit.
BWW: But when sexuality was raised there was this kind of interesting duality for Kitty – an embarrassment but also an “I’m not going to run away from this” attitude. Do you know what I mean?
DJR: I do know what you mean, because she was raised in the 1950s. She was very similar to me. But of the two of them (Kitty and her husband Red), I think Red had a big problem. “I don’t want to discuss it. I don’t want to know from the body.” So I think some of her embarrassment might have been when she was with him because she didn’t know how to cover it. I guess maybe she was a little bit repressed because of the times, but I think it also titillated her. But Red could have totally used Dr. Ruth!
BWW: I know that you did a lot of research and met with Dr. Ruth in preparation for the role. As you got to know her, what impressed you the most and how is that coming across in your portrayal?
DJR: She’s 84 years old. She is sharp as a tack. She doesn’t miss a beat. I was so surprised when I met her. She’s really funny. She’s really giving and generous. I try to take a lesson from that. I think that I could be a little more generous sometimes. I have this huge giant respect for her. I was so scared when she came opening night because I really, really, really want to do well by her. I want people to get to know the person that I think she is from this show.
BWW: Initially she did not want any part in having this play done until she got to know Mark and what his vision was.
DJR: I totally understand that. You wonder, “Who’s going to play you? What are they going to do?” I don’t think I would want that. I’m actually shocked she gave in like she did. She was so accepting of it. And she did not know me. But then she started to watch “That ’70s Show” and now she loves it.
BWW: Did she participate in the play’s development?
DJR: No. I was horrified at the thought of it! I said, “She can not come to rehearsal because I can’t have her saying, ‘No, I don’t talk like that. I don’t walk like that.’” And they said, “All right, Debra Jo, all right.” (Laughs) Of course, when I said this I didn’t know her. I had only met her once. I was so terrified. I knew I would get it, but I needed time. I didn’t know how she would handle it. People that aren’t in the theater don’t know the process. But as we got close to opening and we were doing previews I said, “Oh, she can come.” I knew her by then. She was so supportive and generous about the whole thing. I’m using that word a lot about her, but she is this incredibly generous spirit. On opening night her entire family came. I talk about them in the play, so I was a wreck. (Laughs) But it went really well and they came back several times.
BWW: Is there talk of it going beyond Barrington Stage?
DJR: Oh, yeah. We are hoping. That’s what we’re working towards. It would be great.
BWW: What a wonderful tribute that would be to her. I think a lot of people, especially those who didn’t grow up with her, wouldn’t have gained an appreciation of her importance in the culture.
DJR: This summer I think people expected a funny sex show, and it is not that. It’s funny, but it’s heartfelt. It catches people by surprise, and they get very involved.
BWW: So when you initially said, “Oh, that sex person. I don’t think that’s for me,” what were your concerns?
DJR: Well, I’m not a big sex talker person. I am a product of the 1950s. I didn’t know how I’d get past my own embarrassment if I had to do an entire show about sex. There are sections about sex and I’m completely fine with it, but to do an entire show talking about sex doesn’t really interest me. I mean, where do you go with that? It would just be mimicking. This way I am present in moments in her life. I do her whole life. The sniper part? Now that is far more interesting to me. Shooting apparently is more interesting than sex to me. I don’t know what that says about me, but that was the clincher.
BWW: Would you consider this perhaps the most satisfying role you’ve played to date?
DJR: (Long pause) Yes, I think so. (Pause) It’s a lot. It’s a lot. I get to do everything. I get to cry, I get to do really dramatic work – which I very, very rarely get to do. And I get to make people laugh. I get to go on a journey. (Pause) Yes, I’d have to say so. A close second would be “A Girl’s Guide to Chaos” which is the thing that put me on the map. But this one gives me a bigger range.
BWW: There is a real parallel unfolding here between you and Dr. Ruth. A lot of people perhaps see Dr. Ruth as this cute little sexpert character. And maybe a lot of people see you as this quirky little comedic actress…
DJR: So in a way both of us are opening people’s eyes to these two people that you thought you knew.
Dr. Ruth, All the Way continues at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield through October 7. Tickets are $40-$49 and are available by calling the Box Office at 413-236-8888 or online at www.barringtonstageco.org.