Becoming Dr. Ruth

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A true story that continues to inspire

TZiPi Radonsky, left, and Suzanne Larson are friends, and the pair behind the local production of Becoming Dr. Ruth.
TZiPi Radonsky, left, and Suzanne Larson are friends, and the pair behind the local production of Becoming Dr. Ruth.

By Kat Walsh

She was perhaps America’s first famous first-name doctor. Dr. Ruth Westheimer began her career in radio in 1984 and soon rose to fame as a sex therapist on the television show “Ask Dr. Ruth” 

Even today, at a sprightly 89 years of age, she is still giving out advice on love and loving to her 90,000 Twitter followers. Few, however, are aware of the incredible journey that preceded her fame. From fleeing the Nazis in the Kindertransport to Switzerland and joining the Haganah, the Jewish freedom fighters, in Jerusalem as a scout and sniper, to her struggles to succeed as a single mother coming to America, the true story of how Karola Ruth Westheimer became “Dr. Ruth” is life-affirming, inspiring and a Broadway play, Becoming Dr. Ruth.

Suzanne Larson of Beaufort saw a production of the one-woman show when her daughter’s theater company performed it in Wilmington, NC. The play and the life Dr. Ruth had lived surprised Larson – and she wanted Beaufort audiences to see it.

“The thing that really impressed me was that this tiny cheerful person, someone you’ve never seen without a smile, had endured such suffering. How did that happen? How did an abused orphan become such a successful happy individual?  That to me was the great mystery,” says Larson.  

With her own background as an actor, director, and documentarian, Larson has worked in television, news and radio, but says she always loves the theater. The opportunity to direct the play locally was exciting – and she already knew who she wanted to play Dr. Ruth. “My intuition told me TZiPi,” Larson said. “I just had a hunch!”  

TZiPi (pronounced “Sippy”) Radonsky and Larson have been friends for years, both members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Beaufort. Like Dr. Ruth, Radonsky has a wide range of education and experience – she has her doctorate in counselor education, has worked as an executive coach for decades, became a Rabbi in her sixties and has published three books. At first, she was excited at the opportunity to play Dr. Ruth – she had always wanted to act, but her parents never let her. But she was also worried about being able to memorize the lengthy script. 

“I told her that anyone who has memorized the entire Torah and sung it in Hebrew can certainly memorize this play,” said Larson. Both women say that learned so much from doing the play – about the lives of refugees, orphaned children and the historical experience of the Jewish people that is heartbreaking. 

Since Larson and Radonsky joined creative forces, Becoming Dr. Ruth has been performed twice, both times as fundraisers. The first performance took place last October at Beaufort County Disabilities and Special Needs. The second performance took place last weekend, February 3 at the Unitarian Universalist Church. 

As the play begins, Dr. Ruth is leaving her Washington Heights apartment after 36 years. As she packs her books and memorabilia, she tells the story of her life to the audience. Certain photos that bring up memories are enlarged on an upstage video screen — the mother and father she lost to a concentration camp, her as a 12 year old with her classmates in Switzerland, even her dancing with President Bill Clinton and meeting Paul McCartney. 

“Life is always very interesting,” she says early in the play. “We don’t know who we are if we don’t remember who we were.” 

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