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On The Scene week of 02/02/06
What’s “Golda’s Balcony” but Molly Goldberg’s stoop with a vertical view of breaking news rather than bleak Brownsville.
Ah, but what a view! And as Golda Meir stoops to conquer, Valerie Harper steps into the role as if she were born to do so.
From “Rhoda” to “Golda,” Harper’s planted her feet solidly on Mother Earth characters, whether they be born to run wild shopping on the East Side or born to run the Middle East.
“Golda’s Balcony” now comes to mid-town, playing Philadelphia’s Merriam Theater from Feb. 7 to Feb. 12.
So if she’s leaning on a Moshe rather than a Mary, Harper harps on characteristics that have seen her through award-winning portrayals on screen, stage and TV. And if her own ethnicity runs more to lasagna than latkes, Harper’s feasting on this prime role as the late legendary prime minister of Israel with a qvell that would quell any naysayers.
Besides, Jewish, Italian … what’s the difference, she asks with a shrug in her voice, answering a question with a question — prime requisites for both ethnic groups amid a flutter of fingers and hands that bespeaks a common body language.
“There is a humanity, a flair, a sense of fun [with Jews] that is also associated with my people, Italians. Italians and Jews both have a mixture of potent ingredients.”
And in the powder keg of politics that is the Middle East, there is no doubt that that sense of humor — and drama — comes in handy.
“It is,” says Harper of her one-woman wandering Jew of a play, “an exciting journey.”
And quite an education. “I was already a fan [of Golda], but I’ve learned so much about her.”
She remembers the prime minister from prime-time news breaks and specials while Harper was living as an actress in New York. And as someone who has always been politically active, Harper harbors a special affection for the Midwest-raised, Middle East inspired Meir.
Israel is real to her in many ways: “I’ve had dear friends who are sabras and had been to Israel many times before Mrs. Meir died” in 1978.
The “Let’s put on a show” mindset of an entertainer also served as a way to show her support for Israel, as Harper recalls taking part in “a candlelight vigil at Madison Square Garden when the war broke out in ’67.”
But Harper was no Six-Day War warrior; her commitment has been longstanding. And if she is the picture of the late prime minister on stage now, picture this: “Golda’s picture played a prominent part on posters and brochures in the women’s movement of the ’60s,” recalls the activist actress.
“Underneath her picture was the line, ‘But can she type?’ ”
If Harper’s typed as Jewish, it’s somewhat of a surprise. Besides Golda and Rhoda, there was a role she played as a Holocaust survivor in the film “The Executioner,” produced by Moriah Films of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Then, of course, there was the lead character of Marjorie Taub on Broadway in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” Nevertheless, Jewish roles have been the tail-wagging the dogs when it comes to parts. “There have only been four,” she says.
But how powerful they have been. And when it comes to potentates, Golda is the gold standard. “Her life chronicled the life of the Jewish people in the 20th century,” says Harper of her theatrical alter ego whose reign as prime minister ran five years, beginning in 1969.
But where some consider Golda Meir an Israeli who used her Mideast magic as stock in trade, it was also her being of Russian and American stock that stoked her fires, according to the actress.
“She was formed by her Russian roots and living in America,” says Harper of the leader who lived in Milwaukee from age 8 to 21. “That’s some blend.”
Plain-Speaking, but Powerful
From Midwest to Mideast isn’t such a leap of faith for a Jewish leader either. “In my mind,” relates Harper, “her Midwestern background stood her well when she moved to what was then Palestine. She had that Midwestern plain-speaking quality, that intense honesty that informed her.”
Harper has some info of her own to share with fans; they’ll be seeing Golda on stage, not Valerie. “The play is so good,” she says of William Gibson’s redrawing of a play he had written some 30 years earlier for Anne Bancroft and which was refashioned to become a fashionable success for Tovah Feldshuh, who scored a Tony Award nomination for her portrayal last season.
“People shouldn’t be coming to see Valerie Harper; they should be coming to see Golda Meir.”
What they see is what they get, including a surprise or two. The production on Broadway revealed and reveled in what was actually the re-introduction of a fact: Meir had contemplated the nuclear option to resolve the Mideast standoff with her neighbors when the United States hemmed and hawed about helping out.
A Jewish mama with a missile? Bubba figure with a bomb? Mushroom clouds beclouding her decisions? It all helps give shape to the intriguing enigma that is still Meir, who ruled a nation not with a Masada complex but with a survivor syndrome.
“Our secret weapon: no alternative,” said Meir 30 years ago of the nuclear option. But, ultimately, she may have been her nation’s best pre-emptive strike strategy of all.
Not that she was without controversy — even now. Indeed, Steven Spielberg’s current controversial “Munich” portrays her as a manipulative major leader whose decision to exterminate terrorists after the Olympic tragedy in 1972 was not without pathos and painful soul-searching.
And not everyone was a fan of the way she failed to keep an eye out for the machinations of what some considered the reckless direction of Moshe Dayan.
But “Golda’s Balcony” supports Meir as a bulwark, a force of nature in preternaturally precarious times even with some cracks in the foundation. And if Harper — who also played Mother Earth icon Pearl Buck in a one-woman show about the author — has a good read on the times, it’s because, well, “I’m still reading about [Golda], still learning. The more I know about her, the more I have in my bones.”
Make no bones about it, that visceral vim and vigor vents on stage. And in going for the Golda, Harper has a welcome visitor helping her along. “Every time I start on stage at night, I say, ‘All right, Golda, come on in.’ ”
And arrive she does. But if it’s been a double chai in years since Harper first introduced the Jewish character of Rhoda to the world, her heartfelt devotion to Jews and Judaism has been timeless. “In my heart,” says Harper, “I am Jewish.
“And if you go back far enough, we all are.