Valerie Harper gives the performance of a lifetime.
Valerie Harper gives the performance of a lifetime.
Aaron Epstein

Portrait of an "Old Lady"

In darkness, the soft, plaintive wailing of a cantor is suddenly broken off by bursts of gunfire, flashes of explosions and the deafening drone of jetfighters overhead. The stage lights come up. Hair streaked with gray, legs thick with phlebitis, a dowdy woman sits slumped over the table next to a telephone. She wears a shapeless housecoat. Behind her looms a great stone wall, incised with menorahs and Stars of David -- a bunker, perhaps, or more likely the Wailing Wall. Slowly she lights a cigarette and looks out at us, her face ashen and lined. "I'm at the end of my story," she exhales with frayed voice. Weary, yes. Defeated, no. Resolute, always.

This is no mere bubele, but the prime minister of Israel, one of the most intriguing personalities of the 20th century -- Golda Meir. She may say she's at the end of her story, but for the next 90 minutes, Broadway in Houston's Golda's Balcony holds us captive, fascinated by her intensely personal and epic journey. Meir's story embodies the complexity, paradox and heart of the country she helped to create. For many, she is Israel.

Playwright William Gibson, lauded for his masterful retelling of young Helen Keller's spiritual and mental awakening in The Miracle Worker, wrote his first play based on Meir's life in 1977; Golda, starring Anne Bancroft, flopped spectacularly on Broadway. For this complete revision, which is now on national tour after a successful 15-month run on the Great White Way, he has wisely cut out all the other actors and let Golda have the stage all to herself. The cast of characters remains just as kaleidoscopic -- Henry Kissinger, Moshe Dayan, Jordan's King Abdullah, David Ben-Gurion, the Pope, concentration camp survivors, Golda's war cabinet, her husband, Morris, her mother and father, and her chauffeurs and personal assistants -- but this time, the diverse personages are filtered through Golda.


Golda's Balcony

Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525.

Through April 9. $30-$70.

Gibson tries a little too hard to weave the stories of Meir and Israel, using as the play's premise the hours leading up to her decision whether to stage a strike using nuclear weapons at the outset of the Yom Kippur War. The joint Egyptian-Syrian blitzkrieg on October 6, 1973, the High Holy Day when the Israeli army was demobilized and attending synagogue, had caught the usually overly cautious and highly prepared Israeli cabinet completely by surprise. In some clunky plotting, Meir refuses to talk about "Dimona," which we later learn is Israel's top-secret nuclear weapons facility in the Negev. "No, I'm not ready to discuss it," she says with histrionic flourish while the lights go all spooky, and she's off on another part of her history, leaving Dimona behind an artificial cloud of suspense. These historic events, telescoped and crosscut by Gibson into Meir's life story, are artificially dramatized, as if the chronological sequence of real events -- we're talking the existence of Israel here -- weren't ultra-dramatic all by itself.

Gibson covers the highlights of both Meir's life and Israel's founding like a dutiful professor, giving the parallel stories sweep and emotional weight, even if he does sacrifice analysis for the skipping-stone theory of historical nonfiction. (Just the highlights, ma'am, if you please, he implies.) So we jump from the war room with Golda lunging to answer the phone, to her early passion for Ben-Gurion's Zionist zealotry; from childhood memories of her father boarding up their house to ward off an impending czarist pogrom, to the dissolution of her marriage. There's another snippet in the war room, then we're off to an internment camp in Cyprus just after WWII, where Meir's mission is to rescue refugee children. From there, we speed-dial through her courtship with Morris, then are whisked away as she signs Israel's Declaration of Independence. It's a whirlwind, personal cruise through the 20th century, but the random vignettes add telling details, if not great depth, to this amazing woman's determination and grit.

But every now and then, Golda stops to recount a scene from her life that's so wrenching, it takes your breath away. One is an homage to Jerusalem's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, before whose eternal flame Meir impassionedly recites the names of the concentration camps etched into the stone floor. In its deceptively simple way, the reading of the 22 names boldly awakens us to the importance to the world of Israel's mission and right to exist. "Never forget" is their battle cry from the heart. She ends her reminiscing with a devilish twinkle, noting that "just steps away" from the memorial, "you can get a great knish." Amid horror, bloodshed and annihilation, "life goes on," she says with maternal wisdom. It has to.

Holding all this together, of course, is Valerie Harper, who truly gives the performance of a lifetime. Yes, the woman who played beloved, wacky Rhoda Morgenstern -- one of TV Land's most popular creations -- on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda. Who knew? Even after rave reviews for The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Harper surprises with the depth of character, subtle shading and searing conviction she brings to Golda. She subsumes herself in a performance that's powerful for its heartfelt sincerity, yet refreshingly free of gimmick and artifice. Pro that she is, Harper knows how to put over a one-liner or Yiddish aphorism like a sly Catskill comic, while remaining true to the steely determination and piercing commonsense core of the "Old Lady" -- as the Arab leaders begrudgingly called Meir behind her back.

Abetted by director Scott Schwartz, the production moves constantly, jazzed up with CNN-like projections of maps, blazing sound effects, photographs of the participants Golda impersonates and that inevitable, ticking clock face marking time in the war room.

Gibson's one-woman play, not the smoothest of contraptions, is vehicle enough to whet our appreciation of and gratitude for one of the world's powerhouse personalities. Harper supplies the dramatic heartbeat. Golda Meir supplies the awe.


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