Actress Debra Jo Rupp thought twice about taking her latest role, Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
“What, me be Dr. Ruth? You’re talking about the little sex therapist person, right? I said, oh no, I don’t think I’m the girl for that,” she recalled.
But then the “That 70’s Show” star learned the diminutive Dr. Ruth Westheimer served as a sniper in the Israeli army and everything changed.
“Then, I knew,” she added with her signature chuckle. “It speaks well of my state of mind at the time. She’s the only person in America who makes me feel tall.”
Rupp brings the one-woman show, “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” to Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse this week and her number one fan — Westheimer herself — will be in the audience.
“She is wonderful,” said the 86-year-old therapist who attends nearly every performance. “I have to pinch myself because it’s not me on stage, but she knows I’m there.”
Dr. Ruth became a cultural icon 30 years ago when her cable television show, “Sexually Speaking,” brought frank talk about sexuality and sexual relations into living rooms across the country. She regularly concluded the show with her signature advice, “Get some.”
She frequently appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman,” as a guest on scripted television dramas, in commercials and been spoofed on sketch comedy shows. In the January 2009 55th anniversary issue of “Playboy” magazine, she was named the 13th most influential person in sex over the past 55 years.
To prepare for the role, Rupp did the usual research and also spent time with Westheimer.
“She was alive, and I thought, oh dear God, I’m the only person who does a one woman show about a person who is alive,” Rupp explained, “so I was very careful.”
When Westheimer prepared for her media debut, she was encouraged to undergo speech therapy to soften her heavy European accent.
“I made a dollar an hour and couldn’t afford them,” Westheimer said, but Rupp “had to hire a speech coach to learn mine!”
The play, written by Mark St. Germain (“Freud’s Last Session”), traces Westheimer’s life from her flight from Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport and the battle for Israeli independence as a sniper in the Haganah to her struggles to succeed as a single mother in America.
The author of 31 books, Dr. Ruth recently completed six-year stints teaching at Yale and Princeton Universities. She is now in the second year leading a seminar on family in the media at Columbia Teachers College.
“That’s why the play is so important for me, it talks about the importance of the family. I believe the reason I was able to do the things I am doing is because the first 10 years of my life I lived in a loving Jewish Orthodox family. The foundation was set,” she said. “Everything that I do always has something to do with the importance of the family, not just sex, but there’s plenty of sex in the play.”
Westheimer and Rupp will be conducting talkback sessions following performances of “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” except the Friday, May 9 show, and Rupp will attend a reception that evening as part of fundraiser for Broward House.
Dr. Ruth again offered her sage advice, “I promise good sex to everybody who comes to the show, but no sex in the theater!”
“Becoming Dr. Ruth”
Through May 11
Tickets $28 – 66.50 at ParkerPlayhouse.org