With the anxiety surrounding the Palestinian election victory of Hamas — not to mention the arguments generated by Steven Spielberg’s morally dense “Munich” — the timing seems right to revisit the life of a Mideast leader who faced more than her share of crises: Golda Meir. Following the Broadway and L.A. runs of “Golda’s Balcony,” Valerie Harper steps into Tovah Feldshuh’s sensible shoes in the national tour of the resilient work, developed over years by scripter William Gibson.
Putting the gentile Harper in such an iconic Jewish role may strike some as not exactly kosher, her runs as TV’s Rhoda and onstage in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” notwithstanding. But thesp brings a grounded authenticity to the part, giving the character heart, humor, strength and, most of all, passion. In Philly, midway through the tour, auds ate it up.
Much as she did in the national tour of “Allergist’s Wife,” Harper puts her own stamp on a role that seems to be the exclusive turf of another. The makeup, prosthetics and padding here evoke the Meir look rather than creating an exact physical duplicate. Harper conjures the woman by sheer will, under Scott Schwartz’s nicely paced, nuanced helming.
Aud gets an amazing personal history course as seen through the eyes of one of the most fascinating leaders of the 20th century. Using the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which a beleaguered Meir considers using her nuclear arsenal, the play leaps back and forth in time, explaining not only the prime minister’s life story but that of the state of Israel as well.
Sometimes the dramaturgical pivots are a little too jarring in the effort to complete Meir’s full biography — also not entirely necessary as Gibson’s Golda-at-the-brink moment is potent all by itself. Sometimes, too, the narrative seems more like a speech for Israeli fundraising (of which Meir was a master) than a play in which the aud discovers details on its own. But overall, Gibson does justice to the twin tales.
Meir’s story — as told in her own aud-friendly way — is a beaut, from experiencing a Russian pogrom to growing up in Milwaukee, her emigration to Palestine, her life in a kibbutz and the behind-the-scenes stories of the creation of Israel. Script and perf capture Meir at her most iconoclastic: probing, tough, witty, mesmerizing and maternal (though even she admits that she wouldn’t be named mother of the year).
Harper succeeds in the most challenging part: making her character believable not just as a stage presence but as a serious and steely leader of her country at a moment of world brinkmanship.
Touring show is handsomely rendered, with Anna Louizos’ sets suggesting the many bunkered walls Meir faced in her life. Helpful projections keep the many characters straight, capture a dramatic mood and give some production-value oomph to the solo piece.