As managing director of the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane University, its not surprising Clare Moncrief says she is comfortable with the Bard's work, but in the one-woman show Golda's Balcony at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, she's playing a uniquely powerful woman: former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
"It's not just a one-woman show," Moncrief says. "It's an opera. I have done Lady Macbeth, I've done Cleopatra, I've done everything. But this is something else. It's the enormity of the emotional range and managing the emotional arc (in Golda's Balcony). It's nonstop. It's like a train."
Golda's Balcony is set during a crucial night of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War after Egypt and Syria invaded Israel and severely damaged its air force. Meir is battling surrounding nations, the Israeli cabinet and an intense negotiation for military aid with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Nixon administration. Israel desperately needs more jet fighters. Between calls to Washington D.C. and Israeli leaders, she looks back on her life and how she came to the decisions she faces.
"Throughout the whole piece, she is examining her motives," Moncrief says. "'Why did I do this? Why did I make this decision to kill people, to send boys out to die?'"
Meir was born Golda Mabovitch in Kiev, Ukraine, and her family immigrated to the United States, but she always remembered her father protecting the family from pogroms, the violent persecution of Jews in the Russian empire. Meir grew up in Milwaukee, Wis., and though she was particularly bright, her parents thought she should marry instead of pursuing an education. Meir moved in with her sister in Denver, where she socialized with other young leftists and Zionists. There she met her future husband, Morris Meyerson, who was a sign painter, fellow intellectual and a man who loved literature. Meir's parents preferred an older, wealthier Milwaukee man for her, but she married Meyerson.
Meir was not satisfied with being a "parlor Zionist," and she convinced her husband to move the family to a kibbutz in Palestine, where they raised their two children. Meir wasn't entirely pleased with their hand-to-mouth lives there, but she loved the communalism of the kibbutz.
"She was a dyed-in-the-wool socialist," Moncrief says. "She adored the kibbutz and sharing everything and everyone being in on every decision."
The social and political structure of the kibbutzes fed into a much bigger goal. Meir was committed to the creation of the nation of Israel — a mission she embraced wholeheartedly, and being hard-driving and politically gifted, she quickly ascended to positions of responsibility and power.
"She admits her failure was her marriage and the way she failed to be with her children," Moncre says. "She clearly labored to beget the state instead of her family."
In the 1930s, Meir became active internationally working toward the creation of a Jewish state. She played a crucial role as a liaison to Jewish communities in the United States. (Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion convinced her to change her name to Meir.) Her career in politics culminated in her election as prime minister in 1969, and she served until 1974.
Her life story fascinated novelist and playwright William Gibson, who is best known for his work about another strong woman, Helen Keller. Gibson won the 1960 Tony Award for best play for The Miracle Worker (starring Anne Bancroft), which was later made into a popular movie. His first attempt to tell Meir's story was Golda, a 1977 Broadway flop, also starring Bancroft.
Meir died in 1978. Her story became the subject of several movies, and she was portrayed in movies by Ingrid Bergman, among others. Gibson later decided to rework his play into Golda's Balcony, which debuted in 2003 and became one of Broadway's longest-running one-woman shows. It was later made into a film starring Valerie Harper.
The title refers to two vantage points, one on her personal life and another on her political leadership. Gibson skillfully interwove Meir's personal history with her ideological and political life, which ultimately she preferred. Meir was referred to as "Iron Lady" long before England's Margaret Thatcher. As Gibson portrays events, Meir carried the weight of the world on her shoulders during the Yom Kippur War. Having escaped the pogroms and helped refugees from the Holocaust relocate to Israel after World War II, she was well acquainted with the struggle for survival. But in her quest to gain aid from the United States, she was on the same world stage as the Cold War superpowers.
Gibson balances Meir's personal life and the political crisis without making them appear equal, creating a compelling personal portrait of a world leader. But Meir's life is remarkable for the way it reflects changes in the 20th century, especially for Jews and for women.
"She's within two to three years of my maternal grandmother, who is what you would call a real steel magnolia," Moncrief says. "She was incredibly strong. I have photos of her at 14 in a Gibson Girl hat. But to think of someone coming up at that time — and (Meir) was an immigrant — to think of a woman at that time becoming a world leader. It's stunning."