Golda Meier’s story is one of the fascinating political tales of the twentieth century: the schoolteacher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who became the fourth prime minister of Israel and guided her young nation through the tense days of 1973’s Yom Kippur War, when the country’s survival was deeply in doubt. She was a hawkish icon of a fiercely strategic form of feminism: Margaret Thatcher before Margaret Thatcher, a Hillary Clinton who won the vote. However they felt about her positions, she awoke in many people – women, men, schoolchildren – a rising sense of the possibilities of what could be done in the world, and who could do it.
When we first meet her in Golda’s Balcony, William Gibson’s one-woman play that opened Thursday night at Triangle Productions, it’s 1978 and she is 80 years old, nearing the end of her life. “I am at the end of my stories,” she almost whispers as embodied by actor Wendy Westerwelle, and then proceeds to spin a web of them for ninety minutes, alone onstage, with no intermission.
The tales take her back to her early days in Milwaukee, after emigrating with her family at age 5 from Kiev – moving first to New York, and two years later to the Midwest. Here, in Milwaukee, is where she meets the young Jewish socialist Morris Meyerson, whom she begins to date and then marries on condition that they move to a kibbutz in Palestine. Here, in Palestine, the young Zionist’s life seems truly to begin.
Westerwelle, a veteran of solo shows who’s portrayed characters ranging from Sophie Tucker to Dr. Ruth, inhabits Meir’s character nicely, with a range of fatigue and fierceness, sometimes a sense of loss and longing, and every now and again a comic shrug as she tosses off a joke. She is old enough to play Meir in her twilight convincingly, and young enough to do it with the intensity that the role requires. And it’s a good role: Tovah Feldshuh was nominated for a Tony for it in 2004, and Golda’s Balcony went on to become the longest-running woman’s solo show in Broadway history.
Gibson, the author of Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker, doesn’t cast Meir in heroic mold – at least, not in comic book fashion. He celebrates her strength and resolve, but doesn’t flinch from her flaws. Golda is pretty plain in the course of the play about what her priorities are, and the causes of Zionism and statehood always come ahead of her husband and children, whom she leaves for long periods as she pursues her political career. Morris, as it turns out, is a quieter sort of person, interested in small things over the big issues and strategies that consume Golda’s being. It’s the way things are.
Golda’s Balcony goes back, back, back before the Yom Kippur War and continues afterward, but that fateful period provides the core of the play. Telephones ring with terse negotiations and news of the latest crisis. Meir goes into emergency mode, snapping out quick commands, making arguments, assuming control. What should she do? Attack first, or wait so it’s clear who the aggressor is? Should she nuke the enemy? The possibility is there. How to deal with the Americans? Will Nixon make good on his promises? What’s Kissinger’s game? Where are the warplanes that were promised? Gibson, Westerwelle, and director Don Horn get down to the nitty-gritty of that fervent and scratchy alliance between the two nations, one that is both intimately close and scarred with distrust and resentments. And they do it at a time when anti-Semitism is a rising tide in the United States with multiple bomb threats against Jewish schools and community centers, making Meir’s life and the issues of the play all the more pertinent and crucial.
One credit in the show’s program – “Costume/dress: Mark David Larsen” – stands out. Larsen, an artist and set designer who was born in 1946, died in October. He was Westerwelle’s husband, and a good man. In her dedication, Westerwelle declares that he “always encouraged me, was my best friend, taught me how to forgive, called me on my shit, and gave me a family for 35 years. I love you Markla.” Golda Meir couldn’t have said it better.
Triangle Productions’ Golda’s Balcony continues through April 1 at The Sanctuary @ Sandy Plaza, 1785 N.E. Sandy Blvd. Ticket and schedule information here.