'Dr. Ruth, All The Way' Much More Than Sex Talk

The first thing actress Debra Jo Rupp wants you to know is that her new role in a solo show about Dr. Ruth is not about sex.

Well, not all of it anyway.

But it's hard not to deal with the subject, especially given the playful title: "Dr. Ruth, All the Way" — and the profile of its subject, Dr, Ruth Westheimer, perhaps the most well-known advocate for frank, educated talk about sex since Masters & Johnson.

Only it's cuter, coming from the diminutive grandmother with the helium voice and the upbeat attitude.

In Mark St. Germain's show, which is receiving its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company's second theater in Pittsfield, Mass., the back story of the woman is just as extraordinary as her sex talk. The good doctor is far more that the sum of those private body parts she so often talks about.

At age 9 in 1939, an only child of Orthodox Jews, she was sent from Germany by her mother and grandmother to Switzerland after her father was taken by the Nazis. She lost both parents in the Holocaust.

At 20, she trained as a Haganah sniper in pre-independence Palestine. She was seriously wounded and lost part of her right foot by an exploding shell in 1948.

At 22, she studied in France with famed psychologist Jean Piaget and immigrated to the United States in 1956.

She married three times, raised two children —- and then started her media career in 1980 at the age of 52, becoming the most well-known expert on sex, with her no-nonsense talk given with a dollop of maternal cheer.

"Her story is unbelievable," says Rupp, 61, during an afternoon break on the day of her first preview. "And what she has gone through. You look at this woman with this good humor, who is kind without any mean -spiritedness, and who loves life — it's simply amazing."

Rupp, who is best known for her portrayal of the daffy mother Kitty Forman in TV's"That '70s Show"for eight years and Alice (Phoebe's cougar sister-in-law) in "Friends," says when she was approached to do the show last fall by the playwright her first reaction was "Whaaat? The sex woman? Oh, Mark. I don't think I'm your girl for that."

Why not?

"I don't talk about sex a lot," says the Boxford, Mass.-raised Rupp, who says she came from "New England, practical stock. And who wants to listen to a show about sex for 90 minutes? I don't. I just really don't. But Mark said, 'No, no, Debra Jo. Did you know that she was a sniper in the Israeli Army?' Well, when he said that I just had to do it."

Germain knows his way around the biographical block having written the off-Broadway hit "Freud's Last Session" (about a meeting between psychiatrist and atheist Sigmund Freud and British author and Christian C.S. Lewis), which he developed at the Berkshire theater. Last summer "Best of Enemies," his play about a Klansman and an African-American Civil Rights advocate, premiered at the theater.

Rupp met Westheimer, 84, before rehearsals began at the doctor's Washington Heights apartment that overlooks the Hudson River, which is where the play takes place.

Like Dr. Ruth, Rupp at five-foot-two is a small woman. (Dr. Ruth is four-feet-seven.)

"Dr. Ruth is the only person who has ever said to me, 'You are so tall!'

"She liked my eyes," Rupp says of their first meeting. "As we talked she held my hand, though I'm not a physical person. I'm German, which here is a good thing here. My family was apparently Jewish many generations ago but we were never raised that way."

Asked for other similarities, Rupp says: "We both have high energy. We both lived our life looking up. We do march with purpose."

Westheimer's home is void of any sexual images on display, says Rupp, but the good doctor showed her guests framed shadow-box photos.