Reviewed by Judy Richter
Despite her humble beginnings as a poor Russian immigrant in Milwaukee, Golda Meir became one of the most powerful women in the world, serving as prime minister of Israel during an especially turbulent time. Playwright William Gibson traces her remarkable journey in "Golda's Balcony," a one-woman show being staged by TheatreWorks. Directed by Aaron Davidman, artistic director of San Francisco's Traveling Jewish Theatre, the 90-minute, intermissionless work features Camille Saviola in the title role.
The play takes place in Israel in October 1973, the Yom Kippur War. Facing almost certain defeat at the hands of Syria and Egypt, Meir spent several tense days trying to get arms and equipment from the United States, but Secretary of State Henry Kissinger appeared to be stalling her. Without U.S. help, Meir had one more option to consider: a nuclear strike against the aggressors, she told him. She realized it would almost certainly result in chain reaction retaliation involving the Soviet Union and United States, thus setting off a nuclear holocaust unprecedented in world history. At the very last minute, the United States gave Israel what it needed, averting the unthinkable.
During the long, tense hours of waiting, Meir talks about her life and the events that led to her present situation. Her dedication to the idea of a Jewish homeland began when Golda Mabovitch was only 17 and joined the Labor Zionist Organization. Two years later, she was touring the country to advocate for a Jewish homeland. She also married Morris Meyerson, whom she had met five years earlier while living with her sister in Denver. In 1921 they began living in the British Mandate of Palestine (now Israel), where their son and daughter were born. Her activism escalated as she rose higher in the echelons of Zionism. It also caused a rift between her and Morris, essentially forcing her to make the heart-wrenching choice between family and politics. She chose the latter and later changed her last name to Meir (which means to illuminate) even though she remained married to Morris until his death in 1951.
The play provides an informative capsule history of the formation of Israel and some of the reasons for the Arab-Israeli tensions that continue today. It only touches on the Palestinian issue and oil, but that's all right because this is Meir's personal story.
Saviola does well as Meir, who appears as a woman in her 70s with health problems. As Meir recalls her life, projections by Chad Bonaker on Duke Durfee's simple set show some of the scenes or people she's talking about. Costume designer Jill C. Bowers has her start in a bathrobe that she removes to reveal a dark, no-nonsense dress with sensible black shoes. Cliff Caruthers' sound design is intrusive with its startling explosions or war planes between scenes and some background music, of which Meir twice says, with annoyance, "I can do without the music." So can the play.
It's a challenging play for an actress, but Saviola and director Davidman meet the challenge, resulting in a thought-provoking, informative evening.