At New Rep, a war-weary Golda Meir looks back
WATERTOWN – There was never a chance that Golda Meir was going to stay in the kitchen.
After she left the United States to live in a kibbutz in Palestine in 1921, there actually was a time she was sent to the kitchen to make matzo balls.
She emerged to become a pioneering leader, her life examined in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of William Gibson’s“Golda’s Balcony.”
Playwright Gibson (“The Miracle Worker”) has crafted a winning, witty 100-minute piece about the woman who became Israel’s fourth elected prime minister – and first woman – in 1969 and guided the still-struggling state through one of its most perilous periods: The 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Bobbi Steinbach’s resume as an actress needs no burnishing but here she adds a studied, skilled, and measured portrayal of Meir to go along with her recent turn as Yentl in “Fiddler on the Roof” at the New Rep and other fine efforts in musicals such as “Sunday in the Park with George” and “A Little Night Music.”
The Golda of this piece is late in life, has heart woes and cancer and at this point knows it’s not a matter of if but when, and she emerges from backstage, dons a bathrobe and starts smoking the cigarettes that are seemingly omnipresent during her life, which ended in 1978 at the age of 80.
As the play begins, she receives a call that Egyptian and Syrian forces have launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, part of the 1973 war over lands Israel accessed during the Six-Day War of 1967. She begins marshaling her forces, and iconic names such as Moishe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion come to the fore; later, the name-dropping includes her “boyfriend” Pope Paul VI and Henry Kissinger.
Amidst the back-and-forths with generals and reports from the front, she flashes back to various times in her life, from the early years in Russia where her father fled the pogroms, to the move to Milwaukee when she was seven, to her early adventures in leadership and activism.
She details her decision to pick up and move while a teen to live with her married sister in Denver, where all-night discussions sparked her already keen interest in Zionism and trade unionism.
While in Denver, she also met and eventually married sign painter Morris Meyerson. Steinbach’s Golda is a stern, determined, to-the-point woman and secure in her convictions but there is also a palpable sense of regret at times, especially when it comes to her husband. She married Meyerson in 1917 when she was 19, moved with him to a kibbutz in Palestine at 23, but the two ended up living apart in later years before he died in 1951. She admits to dalliances outside the marriage.
“I ruined his life,” she said ruefully about the personal cost of her move away from Jerusalem with their children to further her political career in Tel Aviv, which made him a part-time husband and father.
In her zeal to advance Israel’s interests, Meir was a dynamic fund-raiser – once banking $50 million in pledges for the new state after a U.S. tour.
As a humanitarian, she put her heart and soul into resettling Holocaust refugees, persisting through the frustrations of the British occupation of Palestine and the U.N. oversight until finally the establishment of the Jewish State itself in 1948.
As she moves up the ladder of governmental posts, Meir feels deeply the death of every soldier, especially so while she was prime minister. She becomes known as the leader who made chicken soup for her soldiers.
Interspersed throughout the production are the sounds of war: artillery, bombs hitting their target, and the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire. Through it all, Meir gamely soldiers on, her personal struggles with health and family intertwined with the Jewish people’s seemingly endless woes. She allows that “Survival is maybe a synonym for Jewish.”
In his portrayal of Meir, Gibson has chosen not to make judgments on the decisions the character made or the rightness of her causes; he lets Meir speak for herself, and leaves it to history to sort out the rest.
New Rep Artistic Director Jim Petosa had planned the play to run in conjunction with the first few months of the term of the first female president in U.S. history.
That didn’t happen. But the portrayal by Steinbach of a strong, fearless female leader holds your attention while Gibson gives you enough peeks behind stage to keep you entertained and interested. Judy Braha’s direction is sure-footed and en pointe.
There is a harrowing moment during the Yom Kippur War when Meir, as described by Gibson, discussed an unthinkable nuclear option if the very existence of Israel were threatened, and if the U.S. were to continue to drag its feet on its promised aid.
She muses about the destruction of innocent lives apart from the war itself. “What happens when idealism becomes power? It kills. To save a world you create — and this is the terrible question — how many worlds are you entitled to destroy?’’
“Golda’s Balcony.” Play by William Gibson. Directed by Judy Braha. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Mainstage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown. Through April 16. Tickets $30-$59, 617-923-8487. www.newrep.org