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Broadway Play Honors Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir - 2003-11-07

A one-person play on the life of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir has opened on Broadway. Golda's Balcony is set against the background of the early hours of the 1973 Middle East War, which nearly ended in a nuclear catastrophe.

October 6, 1973 - Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir learns that Egypt and Syria had launched a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews.

With the help of sound and light effects, veteran stage actor Tovah Feldshuh recreates the early hours of the 1973 conflict.

Israel was caught unprepared. Hundreds of soldiers were dying and Israel was losing tanks and planes.

"No, no, no, no, no. I knew it. I knew it yesterday in my bones," the actress says. "All right, all right, call a meeting, 6:00 a.m. Tell the others. My generals. Half of my cabinet [is] generals, and not one of them could smell yesterday that today it is war. " Golda's Balcony has moved to Broadway, after a successful run at a small New York theater.

Critics are giving the play mixed reviews. But most agree that actor Tovah Feldshuh transforms into an almost eerie likeness of Israel's only woman prime minister.

Wearing a wig, a fake nose, and thick brown stockings, Ms. Feldshuh becomes Golda Meir at the age of 70. She smokes one cigarette after another. And she speaks with the thick American Mid-Western accent that Mrs. Meir picked up in her youth in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Ms. Feldshuh tells the audience the story of Golda Meir's life. Russian-born and American-raised, a young Golda was exposed to the Zionist Movement and leader David Ben Gurion, who became Israel's first prime minister.

"I was backwash from Russia, but Milwaukee was where I grew up. And to Milwaukee came a Jew named Ben Gurion," she recalls. "And he told us of the pioneers in Palestine. He said: 'the Jewish homeland must be the model for the redemption of the human race!' I was young. It seemed reasonable."

From her struggles and diplomatic missions to her decision to choose her cause over her husband and children, Golda's Balcony is told entirely from Mrs. Meir's perspective.

The play is a revision of William Gibson's 1977 show Golda which starred Anne Bancroft.

The 89-year-old playwright, best known for his Broadway hit The Miracle Worker, revamped the earlier script, which came out of eight months of conversations with Mrs. Meir, just before her death in 1978.

In the new Golda's Balcony, Mr. Gibson focuses on Israel's controversial nuclear program.

Israel is losing the war. Pacing and smoking, Mrs. Meir is in crisis mode. Her ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz, is unable to secure 48 F-4 phantom planes from U.S. President Richard Nixon and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

"Simcha, you spoke with Kissinger?" she asks. "Well I'm so glad he approved, so where are the Phantoms? When do we get them? Check out what with the Pentagon? Nixon himself promised me. Simcha, Simcha, get the Phantoms!"

The play's climax dramatizes a dark hour, now accepted as historically accurate, when Mrs. Meir orders the military to ready nuclear weapons for use.

With the threat of a nuclear disaster, the United States provides Israel with the supplies it needs to push back Egyptian and Syrian forces.

Ms. Feldshuh portrays Golda Meir as a revolutionary, a grandmother and a tormented prime minister who serves chicken soup to her soldiers.

The play's title, Golda's Balcony actually alludes to two balconies that serve as metaphors for Mrs. Meir's life.

One is a peaceful spot in Tel Aviv with a view of the Mediterranean Sea. The other is at Dimona, Israel's underground nuclear reactor in the Negev desert that Mrs. Meir calls a direct view into hell.

In a particularly poignant moment, Mrs. Meir laments the struggle that continues to plague Israelis and Palestinians three decades later.

"Our cousins," she said. "Our blood cousins, if you go all the way back to Abraham. But now, two peoples and one piece of land."