Sonnie Osborne Shines in 'Golda's Balcony'
When the curtain goes up on “Golda’s Balcony” at TheatreWorks New Milford, the audience immediately understands the grave decision a 75-year-old Golda Meir had to make on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. On October 8, 1973, she had eight armed nuclear F-4s on 24-hour alert, and as many nuclear launchers as possible operational and targeting Egyptian and Syrian military headquarters near Cairo and Damascus. Had she decided differently, quite possibly, a nuclear holocaust could have resulted, as depicted in William Gibson’s play, which relays the fascinating and complex life of the Russian-born, American-raised Israeli prime minister.
Flashing back and forth between Meir’s recollections of family and of her long political career, “Golda’s Balcony” provides a well-rounded telling of this strong woman’s life. But at the center of it all is the decision to bomb, or not to bomb, in 1973. Meir may stop to reminisce about her past—even acting out scenes, and replicating the voices of other people in conversations—but it all comes back to the night she makes a decision that changed the world forever.
According to Mr. Gibson’s script, relayed to the audience through a riveting performance by Sonnie Osborne, planes were ready to strike Egypt and Syria at Meir’s command, for she would never have relinquished the state of Israel without a fight. The threat was two-fold, actually. Such a nuclear alert was not only a precaution, but it pushed the Soviets to “restrain the Arab offensive and to convince the U.S. to begin sending supplies,” theater literature notes. As we know from history books, U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, sure Meir could carry out her threat, supplied Israel with the aircraft it needed, much to Meir’s relief.
“Golda’s Balcony” is certainly not light theatrical fare, and is at times heavy-handed with imagery and sound effects playing behind Ms. Osborne’s performance, but it catches the audience’s attention from the start and offers insight into a historical figure who dedicated her life to Israel and its people. Meir was, after all, described as the “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics, long before the moniker was linked to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—and it was well deserved.
Director Jane Farnol, with assistant director Laura Gilbert, has created another dynamic one-woman show for TheatreWorks. In just over 90 minutes, Ms. Osborne, a veteran of the stage in the performance of a lifetime, reveals why Meir was one of the most interesting women of our time.
“From Russian immigrant to American schoolteacher to a leader of international politics as the fourth Prime Minister of Israel,” theater literature notes, the story of Golda Meir, as told in “Golda’s Balcony,” is a “tight-knit story of war and peace.” As the Yom Kippur War looms on the horizon, Meir recounts the story of her life, from her role as a socialist Zionist to her emigration to Palestine in 1921, the birth of her two children, and the disintegration of her marriage. “These details,” TheatreWorks notes, “form an intriguing backdrop for a dramatic look at idealism, power, and the strength it takes to shape the destiny of a nation.”
During the production, we learn Meir was born Golda Mabovitch in Ukraine. But the family emigrated to the United States, settling in Milwaukee, Wis., where young Golda joins a Zionist youth movement, marries Morris Meyerson and, by age 23, immigrates to Palestine, joining Kibbutz Merhavia in 1921. But, the audience soon learns, her family suffered, as Meir admits to a multitude of mistakes for which she chastises herself, making it quite clear there was a price to pay for her heroism.
As the show progresses, Meir recalls her climb through the ranks of the Histadrut (the General Federation of Labor) to head of the political department of the Jewish Agency until the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. Meir was one of 24 people—one of only two women—who signed the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, the equivalent of our Declaration of Independence. And we see her eventual rise to Minister of Foreign Affairs (1956-66), when she, as were all members of foreign service, was required to Hebraicize her last name from Meyerson to Meir.
She recalls how, during the ’60s, she was diagnosed with lymphoma, which remained a secret, even when she resigned from the cabinet in 1965, citing illness and exhaustion. That retirement was short-lived, however, as she was called back to service, first as Secretary-General, and later as Prime Minister. She resigned in 1974 and died four years later at age 80.
While it helps to know a bit of Middle Eastern history, Mr. Gibson’s script keeps the audience informed and engaged, though it does at times become confusing as to what year it is. Ms. Farnol tries to remedy that with light changes, and quite effectively at times.
But truly bringing this production to life is Ms. Osborne, tasked with delivering this history-heavy material in her most riveting performance to date. Not only must she maintain the demeanor of the iron-willed Meir, she must portray other people in Meir’s life as she recalls her past. It’s not an easy task, but Ms. Osborne makes it look effortless, as she commands the spotlight. The actress conveys, as she put it, Meir’s “commitment to the creation and preservation of a Jewish state and transformed Middle Eastern politics that still fuel and define relations today. You need only to listen to the news of the day to realize how little has changed in Mid-East politics in more than 70 years.” Hers is a performance not to be missed.
All of this comes to fruition on a simple, but quite effective, set designed by Richard Pettibone that evokes the atmosphere of the Middle East and Meir’s cabinet room, with projections—created by Mr. Pettibone and Tom Libonate—that reflect memories from Meir’s life, adding further humanity to the piece. Kudos also go to Mr. Libonate for his sound design—the sounds of planes and tanks driving home the urgency of this period in history—and to Renee Purdy’s beautiful costume design.
While its subject matter is not amusing—although there are some light moments—“Golda’s Balcony” is spellbinding theater not to be missed, if for no other reason than Ms. Osborne’s mesmerizing portrayal of Golda Meir. It is a performance worthy of the standing ovation it received opening night, and one, I’m sure, would have made the Iron Lady proud.