"Golda's Balcony" Features The Performance Of A Lifetime
NEW MILFORD — If you go to New Milford's TheatreWorks for the current production of William Gibson's Golda's Balcony , not only will you get to see Sonnie Osborne give the performance of her life in the role of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, but you will get an incisive history lesson as well, that can offer some insight into what some people today consider Israeli intransigence and militancy.
With black and white photographs flashing on the walls, and set in October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, this 90-minute one woman tour de force presents the "grandmotherly" 75-year-old, pacing up and down and chain-smoking as she alternately fields phone calls from her generals, and digresses into reminiscences of her long life, beginning with her earliest memory of her carpenter father boarding up the windows in Kiev to protect the family from a murderous pogrom, to her rebellious girlhood in Wisconsin, where she became passionately involved in the Zionist labor movement, and her marriage to a gentle intellectual, Morris Myerson, who followed along reluctantly with her idealistic move to Palestine in 1921.
At the same time Meirs reflects on the personal costs of a political struggle, and the conundrum of how to reconcile moral aspirations with the realities of power.
Born in 1948, the modern State of Israel had a Declaration of Independence which Meir (one of two women among the 24 signers) saw as comparable to the American Declaration, which she had studied in history class as a schoolgirl in Milwaukee, but its own history was more troubled and complicated.
Ever since they had been driven into exile by the Romans, some 2,000 years ago, the Jews had lived as the diaspora — minorities in every place they settled, by turns exploited, vilified and persecuted by the dominant culture. In the 19th Century, concerned by increasing anti-Semitism and especially the pogroms of eastern Europe, Jewish philanthropists began raising money to buy land in Palestine, which at that time, having been conquered by the Turks, was part of the Ottoman Empire, which included North Africa and the Middle East.
Their dream was called Zionism, the goal of which was to create a homeland in which Jews would be safe and free, rather than a despised minority. Jews who had been forbidden by law to own land or farm in European countries emigrated as pioneers, to settle in the desert on kibbutzes. The country was still ruled by the Turks, but Jews and Arabs lived in neighboring villages.
The real trouble began with the First World War, when Turkey joined forces with Germany and Austria. Anxious to raise support, Britain made conflicting promises to the Jews and Arabs: Each group was told that once the war was over, they could have Palestine as their own independent state.
The Arabs were asked to help fight their Turkish overlords. The Jews were asked to use their influence in America, to pressure the United States to enter the war on the side of the Allies.
When the War was over and the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, the middle east was carved up into new "countries" which were essentially British and French colonies. Palestine was treated as a British mandate.
Attracted by the Zionist dream, Jews from Europe and America continued to try to get to Palestine. Some got in, while many others were kept out by British authorities, who didn't want to see the balance of population change.
As the Nazis came to power in Germany and began drastic new persecution of Jews, they also stirred up anti-Jewish sentiments among the Palestinian Arabs, in order to cause trouble for England, and set the stage for German incursions in the Middle East (where the Suez Canal and the oil was).
This also laid the groundwork for bitter civil war between the two groups, each of whom had been made unfulfilled promises, and each of whom had been badly treated by the British, who controlled things. With the Holocaust, the Germans had attempted to wipe out all the Jews on earth, and succeeded in killing six million of them, while in the eyes of Israeli Jews, the rest of the world allowed it to happen, deigning to intervene, refusing to allow refugees to find asylum in their countries.
After World War II the Arabs continued the same rhetoric, promising to drive the Palestinian Jews into the sea. Threatened by the Arab League — whose members comprised Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen — the Israelis were hugely outnumbered, but they were determined to fight back.
This time, in their minds, they were not a despised minority living in someone else's country, waiting helplessly to be rounded up by the SS. No, this time they were fighting for the homeland that had been promised to them since the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and which they had transformed from desert to farmland.
Fast-forward to the cold war climate that succeeded World War II, when the Soviets were already providing arms and materiel to the Arabs in the hope of gaining influence. Meir, whose dream had been to create a peaceful utopian community, made her bones as an Israeli by traveling across America, speaking tirelessly (in her Wisconsin ascent) to Jewish groups, begging for the money to buy tanks and munitions, in order to keep the Jewish homeland alive. She would have preferred to be making chicken soup and darning socks for soldiers, but instead was providing them with the means to kill. And her success on this mission enabled them to win the war that led to the official establishment of the State of Israel.
Now a generation later, as the leader of her people, she is forced into a desperate chess game, involving using the threat of nuclear weapons, in order to convince the cold war powers of the US and the USSR to broker a peace deal and reign in the Syrian and Egyptian forces and their Soviet missiles.
The title of the play refers to two balconies — one that overlooks the benign and peaceful sea from her Tel Aviv apartment; the other, in the secret nuclear installation where Israeli scientists were developing the bomb, echoing the conflict between ideals and realpolitik that marked her role in history.
It is this character Golda, whom playwright Gibson (who brought Helen Keller to the stage in his prize winning drama The Miracle Worker ) turns into a flesh and blood human being. Sonnie Osborne brings her to vibrant life, capturing not just the physical persona (down to the sensible shoes and the frazzled bun) but the indomitable, wise, sardonic, passionate woman thrust into a tangle of events she had never imagined.
The production is enhanced not only by Jane Farnol's brilliant direction (which only confirms my long held opinion that she is the most gifted director in the region) but also by the combined efforts of Richard Pettibone, Scott Wyshynski and Tom Libonate, in using light, sound and an abstract but beautifully toned set that conveys the feel of desert sand and stone. The overall result is powerful, moving, and thought provoking.