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Aisle View: The Education of Dr. Ruth

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You can't judge a book by its cover, and you can't judge Ruth K. Westheimer -- "Dr. Ruth" -- by the covers (or the titles) of her 30-odd books, which include The Art of Arousal, Dr. Ruth's Top Ten Secrets for Great Sex and Sex for Dummies. There is plenty of back story behind the public persona of the diminutive doctor, who became an instant celebrity in 1980 when she turned up on late night talk shows with frank discussions about sex in that outrageous accent.

That back story is documented in Mark St. Germain's Becoming Dr. Ruth, at the Westside Theatre. The play originated at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield in June 2012, under the title Dr. Ruth, All the Way. Playwright Mark St. Germain -- author of the long-running Freud's Last Session -- is an Associate Artist at Barrington Stage; that org's founder Julianne Boyd has done an efficient job as director.

Debra Jo Rupp gives a masterful impression of Westheimer; she has the mannerisms down, a fair approximation of the German/Swiss/Israeli/French/American accent, and is convincing as the 69-year-old therapist. (The play takes place in 1997, following the death of her third and favorite husband.) Rupp -- who is best known for her eight-year run on TV's That '70s Show -- is a whole head taller than the 4'7" Westheimer, but you can't quite tell as there is nobody else on stage for contrast.

Dr. Ruth, initially, was not Ruth at all. Karola Siegel was born in 1928 in Frankfurt; she was five when Hitler became Chancellor, and at ten her father -- an Orthodox Jew -- was picked up by the SS. Soon thereafter, she was selected for the Kindertransport in which a small number of Jewish children were allowed to emigrate to whatever countries would take them. She never learned the fate of her parents or beloved grandmother.

Karola went to Switzerland, where she was treated like a menial for the duration of the War. At 17, she found herself on a kibbutz in Palestine; all the refugees changed their names from German to Hebrew, so she became Ruth. She lived through the Arab-Israeli War, joining the Haganah, proving to be an expert guerrilla sniper, and being seriously injured in a bomb attack.

As you can imagine, Becoming Dr. Ruth is not just an ordinary, clichéd pop biog. There is a tale of struggle, perseverance and survival mixed in with all the sex therapy talk. There is, yes, quite a bit of sex talk, including a not-very-dramatic section where she answers questions from dial-in callers with naughty-for-an-old-dame answers. Like the one about the whipped cream.

Anyone who is interested in Dr. Westheimer (specifically) or in true-life adventure tales of Holocaust survivors (generally) should find Becoming Dr. Ruth an enjoyable way to spend ninety minutes. (The play clocks in, though, at one hundred minutes). A compelling evening that draws in the audience and moves them? Not for the majority of theatergoers, I imagine. Rather, a pleasant and informative divertissement built around an offbeat celebrity.