Israel on the brink

Times Staff Writer

“My dream was simple,” says Golda Meir, as envisioned by William Gibson in his play “Golda’s Balcony.” She wanted to “make a new world.”

In Israel, the Russian-born, American-raised Meir envisioned a place where families such as her own, threatened by pogroms and worse, could live freely. She cried as she signed the Jewish state’s Scroll of Independence in 1948, but tears of a different sort threatened to overwhelm her when, as prime minister in 1973, she faced her dream’s possible obliteration by neighbors Egypt and Syria.

A long-running New York phenomenon, now at the Wadsworth Theatre as a Geffen Playhouse presentation, Gibson’s play depicts Meir facing a terrible decision. She controls nuclear weapons. Should she use them?


At this point, “Golda’s Balcony,” featuring a commanding solo performance by Tovah Feldshuh in the title role, stops being about Meir and starts being about the world at large. For it is here that the story pauses to consider what happens when idealism is backed by military might. How far will the possessor of such power go to ensure that his or her vision for the future is the one that prevails?

The question is meant to resound through history.

To put it across, Feldshuh does all that is within an actor’s power. Wearing padding, facial prosthetics and a wig, she disappears into the grandmotherly yet indomitable woman who became Israel’s standard-bearer. Her Meir, portrayed shortly before her death at 80 in 1978, stands as ramrod straight as old age will allow. She speaks with passion, biting into her words in a deep, raspy voice that resonates with the flat, nasal twang of Meir’s Wisconsin upbringing.

Gibson’s script, however, isn’t all that one might expect from the playwright who so memorably captured Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker.” Except for the story’s doomsday scenario, which isn’t reached until an hour and five minutes into the 90-minute show, the piece sounds like a recitation from a young-readers’ biography.

Meir chain-smokes her way through reminiscences about 80 years devoted mainly to one idea. “Zionism,” she says, “was my whole life.” A fascinating story is reduced to breathless high points, and complexities in the Middle East are simplified into bald statements. Example: “There will be peace when the Arabs learn to love their children more than they hate the Jews.”

Granted, Gibson’s Meir feels her back is against a wall when she says such things. But the play rarely analyzes issues with the depth that might sway anyone who doesn’t already subscribe to its views.

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is reported to have characterized Meir as “the only man in my Cabinet,” and Feldshuh’s portrayal -- forceful and determined -- bears that out. If the end result is a Jewish homeland, she will confront any challenge, whether raising chickens on a kibbutz or accepting Israel’s leadership. Her husband and children, she admits, get short shrift.

Her domestic failings haunt her, but troubling her still more is the situation left unmentioned in her 1975 autobiography and kept secret until many years after the fact: Israel’s nuclear capability and the possibility of its use to turn the tide in 1973’s Yom Kippur War.

As Meir relives the moments when Israel, caught off guard, was hemorrhaging troops and equipment, she repeatedly picks up the phone to exhort the U.S. to send supplies.

Under Scott Schwartz’s direction, the crisis unfolds at a brisk, adrenaline-pumping pace that trumps the artificial effect of a cheesy video-projected clock and its ominous ticking.

“I will never again be the person I was before the Yom Kippur War,” Meir wrote in her book. Feldshuh’s Meir reveals this weariness -- borne while she also battled phlebitis, arthritis, a heart condition and lymphoma -- only in the play’s final moments.

By then she has faced -- and resigned herself to -- the dilemma that faces so many world leaders. “I begin with the redemption of the human race,” she says, “and end up in the munitions business.”


‘Golda’s Balcony’

Where: Wadsworth Theatre, Veterans Affairs campus,

11301 Wilshire Blvd., West L.A.

When: 4 and 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Feb. 12 and Feb. 19; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Feb. 15 and 17; 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16; 8 p.m. Feb. 11 and Feb. 18; 3 and 7 p.m. Feb. 13 and Feb. 20

Ends: Feb. 20

Price: $22 to $66

Contact: (213) 365-3500 or; for $127 VIP packages, call (310) 479-3636.

Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Tovah Feldshuh...Golda Meir

Written by William Gibson. Director Scott Schwartz. Set Anna Louizos. Costumes Jess Goldstein. Lights Howell Binkley. Sound James Grabowski and Michael Gunderson. Original sound and additional music Mark Bennett. Projection design Batwin+ Robin Productions. Makeup John Caglione Jr. Stage manager Karen Munkel.